Yesterday was the State College CBC which I have been looking forward to participating in for weeks now. I covered a lot of territory this year, starting at Bear Meadows and Alan Seeger Natural Areas with Alex and Steve. These higher elevation sites have extensive conifer stands so the hope was to find some less common species such as Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch and finches. We found most of our targets, only striking out on the finches, with only American Goldfinches making an appearance. We also did most of our owling in this area.
We managed to find two Eastern Screech-Owls, one of which Alex photographed. We were fully expecting to be able to find this bird as we had seen it along with a gray phase several times at this location. The only other species of owl we found in the morning was a single Great Horned Owl hooting it up in the distance. Our best finds in the morning were lots of Brown Creepers everywhere and the immature Bald Eagle that was gliding through Bear Meadows as we pulled into the parking area. This fortuitous timing would characterize our day.
Our next stop was the Rockview fields Penn State just purchased along I-99/220. Our first bird upon pulling in was this big female Cooper’s Hawk who was really fluffed up when we first spotted her, making her appear even larger.
We met up with Nadia and Justine in the parking lot and then drove over towards the farthest field. As we were about to turn off Benner Pike towards the entrance, I spotted a distant flock of birds winging their way towards us. Probably a flock of geese but I had Justine pull off to we could count them. About the time that I brought my bins up to my eyes, the birds started gliding- a serious strike against my naked eye identification of Canada Goose. My thoughts flashed to Tundra Swan which would be an excellent bird for the count, but then I noticed that these birds had long necks and long legs.
“Um, Alex…what are those?!?”
“It’s Sandhill Cranes, it’s Sandhill Cranes, it’s Sandhill Cranes!”
And they were. Sixteen Sandhill Cranes that happened to fly directly overhead, providing us with a new record for the State College CBC and an almost record count for any Pennsylvania CBC. Apparently the Linesville CBC had flocks of 13 and 19 in 2008-09.
Needless to say, Alex sprinted down the road to get directly beneath them as they flew towards us and snapped off hundreds of shots.
One of the Sandhill Cranes flew with its legs tucked up, something that Alex and I have never seen before with a flying crane.
The rest of the count through Rockview consisted mostly of American Tree Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and a single Savannah Sparrow. Our next highlight came when a female light type Rough-legged Hawk flew past, leisurely taking its time as it circled nearby and off into the distance. We saw the same bird several different times during our walk.
After finishing with the Rockview fields, we made the decision to head back up to Bear Meadows and try for the saw-whet owl I had heard the previous evening. We could get to the spot at about the same time I had it and so I had high hopes of a repeat. We sat in the car for a bit, tallying up our days numbers – 43 species. As it got dark we headed down the path and, with the help of the Sibley app on my iPhone, played some saw-whet toots and winter vocalizations. Just as I played a recording of a ‘wailing’ saw-whet, an awful screaming wail came out of the brush about 20 feet from us. This was the only sound we could elicit from the owl and soon, freezing cold, we left with our 44th species of the day.
Our goal was to hit 50 species, and while we missed that mark, the birds we saw definitely made for a very enjoyable day. We counted lots of common birds, and got really great looks at some of the rarer species as well.