Now it’s December.

Not too long ago it was October 30th – Hurricane Sandy was ripping through PA and we were chasing storm birds like crazy. Then when we had time in November, we went on a 5 day birding trip and then did some PA rarity chases. Now all of a sudden, it’s December. I figured it would be a good idea to start December off right by birding through the northern portion of Centre County. The area above I80. For some reason I80 seems like the line across the top third of PA where everything becomes more wild. If you want to see Rough-legged Hawks in good numbers as well as have your best chase at finding a Northern Shrike, go north of I80. So that is where we went. We also wanted to try to find some winter finches and/or crossbills and figured this route would work for them too. We made our first stop of the day at Black Moshannon SP. Red Crossbills had been reported there recently, and I still needed them for my Centre County life list. We checked multiple locations around the park without a sign of crossbills. Red-breasted Nuthatches were literally everywhere though. It wasn’t until our last stop at the west side of the Moss-Hanne Trail that we heard the distinctive flight calls of Red Crossbills, directly overhead. We ran out of the trees to get a better look at the sky. Then we noticed two female Red Crossbills perched in a hemlock nearby! Centre County bird #242.

One of two female Red Crossbills at Black Moshannon SP. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

After Black Mo, we checked the Mid-State Airport for shrikes and rough-legs, but didn’t find any. We then started touring the strip-mined areas of northern Centre County – between Grass Flat and Clarence. We spotted an area with lots of brushy fields and patches of larches, birch, and pines. The habitat looked great for White-winged Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and Common Redpolls. We spent about an hour wandering around the area and came across a flock of 7 and another flock of 5 White-winged Crossbills! As we were leaving, we heard flight calls of what were either redpolls or siskins, but they left quick and we never got a visual. At least 20 Red-breasted Nuthatches there as well.

Near Frenchville I finally accomplished a long overdue personal goal. As we were rounding a turn in the road, I spotted three bull Elk standing out in a field. I have always wanted to see the reintroduced Elk in PA, but had never come across one until now. We drove down the road a little further and found a nice place to pull off and watch them. One of the three Elk, and also the largest of the three, had a radio collar around its neck.

One of three bull Elk we saw this afternoon! Notice the radio collar. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

For the rest of the afternoon, we checked some more strip-mined areas for winter raptors and shrikes. We found an adult male Northern Harrier at the German Settlement strip mine area and a female American Kestrel near Moshannon.  The Rusnak Hill strip mine didn’t have any rough-legs yet either, but we did find an adult Red-shouldered Hawk. This is the same area where I have run a winter raptor survey and behind Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk is the most common winter Buteo.

We ended the day at Bald Eagle SP. There were good numbers of waterfowl on the lake, mostly comprised of American Black Ducks and Mallards. We also noted many Hooded and Common Mergansers as well as Gadwall, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Canada Goose, American Coot, Double-crested Cormorant, and Ring-billed Gull. A flyover Bald Eagle was nice as well. There were 4 Common Loons floating out from the swimming beach. We ended up with about 40 species for the day, a nice start to the winter months.