NEWSLETTER OF THE STATE COLLEGE BIRD CLUB, INC.
Spring 2000 Calendar
April 26, 2000 (Wednesday)
7:00 p.m.: Schlow Library
Program: A Conservation Community, by Mark Henry
May 7, 2000 (Sunday)
Field Trip: Walnut Springs (spring migrants)
7:30 a.m. to Noon
Leader: Molly Heath
Meet at Walnut Springs Park
May 13, 2000 (Saturday)
Combined State College Big Day / North American Migration Day
Contact Eugene Zielinski for more information
Midnight to midnight. Further details pending
May 24, 2000 (Wednesday)
7:00 p.m.: Schlow Library
Program: To be announced
June 11, 2000 (Sunday)
Field Trip: Breeding Birds of the Allegheny Front and Black
7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Leader: Molly Heath & SCBC members
Meet at SE corner of K-Mart parking lot
June 18, 2000 (Sunday)
Field Trip: Hawk Run (sparrows)
7:30 a.m. to noon
Leader: Molly Heath
Meet at SE corner of K-Mart parking lot
Additional Field Trips:
April 29 (Saturday)
Lower Trail walk for the Juniata Valley Audubon Society
Leader: Dave Kyler
Meet at the Lower Trail parking in Alfaretta (Alexandria); all SCBC members are welcome to attend
In this issue . . .
A message from Club President Greg Grove,
"A Discussion of the Dickcissel," by John Swinton,
and club meeting highlights from the past year, by Gene Zielinski
by Greg Grove
HABITAT. The single greatest threat to the health of bird populations is LOSS OF HABITAT. A place to live, where all niche requirements are fulfilled.
This organization is one of people who like to look at birds. We admire their beauty and variety and survival skills; we enjoy the challenge of finding unusual birds; we note with unending pleasure their seasonal comings-and-goings; we have fun compiling lists of all sorts.
But should the State College Bird Club be only a club of "Bird-Watchers"? I think most would agree the answer is: We need to do more. We have an obligation to do more. If we who know about birds and the threats to their existence don't speak up, who will? Politicians? Developers? Bankers?
As individual birders and as a group, we need to express our views. People who cherish wildlife must also be willing to take the time to help protect HABITAT.
Contributing to the preservation of Thompson Woods is an obvious example. But we must state our case more consistently. Send letters (or e-mails) to elected officials urging their attention to the environment--make them aware there are voters who care about conservation. Write letters to the newspaper--keep conservation in the public consciousness.
And when you get a chance, without being a wild-eyed fanatic about it, point out to people you know (people who might one day vote for environmental-friendly candidates) the importance of HABITAT preservation.
Birders must consider themselves teachers--showing others that now in the year 2000 the environment is not particularly healthy. We must encourage people to develop a protective mind-set about what remains of our natural world. We must be AMBASSADORS FOR HABITAT.
A Discussion of the Dickcissel
by John Swinton
On January 19, the State College winter, which had been unusually mild, turned suddenly bitter and blustery. That evening, the snow began to swirl in, fine and light, and the next morning--still bitter cold and windy--birds clustered in and around our feeders frantically plundering the seeds and suet.
Among the House Sparrows flocked below the millet feeder, I noticed from over my typewriter, a flash of yellow and got up to glass it from the convenient vantage point our kitchen window provides. As I had hoped and half expected, the yellow belonged to a Dickcissel.
A Dickcissel had patronized our feeder back in 1990, appearing, coincidentally, in mid-January. The earlier bird was an immature male--grayish yellow and faintly streaked on the breast, some bright yellow at the throat, and at first no sign of the distinctive black bib. The bird I spotted on the 20th appears to be a mature male (he is still here as I write, on January 28)--bright yellow in front with the clear outline of a black bib already forming.
An uncommon bird in Pennsylvania, particularly at this time of year when it ought to be in Mexico, the Dickcissel nevertheless appears sporadically at Eastern feeders in winter and seems in its waywardness to favor Cape Cod. It's also a regular visitor to southern California, even though its breeding range is over the Rockies far to the east.
Within its summer range, the Dickcissel is, of course, fairly common. I've seen dozens of them down through the years, the latest last June when I encountered several males on wires and fence posts just west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Beyond its chestnut-and-yellow handsomeness, the bird exhibits unusual behavior patterns and teaches local birders a useful lesson. First, unlike most other migrant passerines, Dickcissels vary their breeding grounds a great deal, rarely returning to the area where they nested the year before. Also, as the affinity our bird shows for House Sparrows suggests, Dickcissels readily flock; and as my South Dakota experience confirms, they can be found in concentrations even during nesting season.
Moreover, like the Varied Thrush that associated with robins last winter above Pleasant Gap, Dickcissels are known for long, lateral post-nesting journeys. Hence, I suspect we would find more of them in late fall and early winter if we paid closer attention to our annoyingly ubiquitous House Sparrows. A female or immature Dickcissel could easily go undetected in a large, raucous flock of "English sparrows."
Furthermore, normally helpful casual observers can dismiss or overlook an unfamiliar Dickcissel. For example, our son-in-law, who enjoys nature and feeds the birds at his home in Sharon, rooms with us through the week while finishing his degree. I showed him the Dickcissel before he left for the weekend on January 20. "Oh, so that's what it is," he said. "I'd been meaning to ask you about the yellow sparrow."
Dickcissels were once regular breeders here in the East, but about 150 years ago, they began a slow withdrawal until, at present, they're a prototypical prairie species occurring between central Ohio and eastern Colorado and in grasslands up to North Dakota and south into Texas. This withdrawal, a near obverse of the House Finch dispersal, may have something to do with Eastern changes in crops and farming practices.
Those who find a Dickcissel take a quick liking to its trim appearance, the coloration of a miniature meadowlark, and the not-quite-musical yet persistent and summery song. Olin Pettingill placed a Dickcissel portrait on the spine of his book A Guide to Bird Finding East of the Mississippi, and the anonymous Dickcissel profiler (probably L. Nelson Nichols) in Gilbert Pearson's monumental Birds of America allowed himself this sentimental interpolation:
"The Dickcissel is so named from the simple song with which he makes cheery the fence-rows and bushy corners of the prairies. Nowhere is the bird classed as one of the leading favorites, and yet a person who lives in the Middle West and does not know him is missing a bird of unusual beauty and genial personality."
When news of our Dickcissel reached the Bird Club's website, a friend saw the posting and congratulated us on our "rare bird." Interesting phrasing, I thought. The Dickcissel is, as I said, common enough throughout its range; it's hardly rare in the sense a Bachman's Warbler is rare. I've been calling it "unusual" and I might have chosen "unexpected" had my neighbor Dorothy Bordner and I not observed the immature Dickcissel in 1990 as it gradually assumed breeding plumage over the ten weeks it spent alternating between our backyards.
When I saw that blurry bit of yellow on the ground out beyond my office window, I knew in my bones what it would be, and I was glad to see it. I'm glad, as well, to be entertaining my fellow Dickcissel enthusiasts in our kitchen observatory while the unusual visitor lingers.
Programs in Review
by Eugene Zielinski
April 28, 1999. Club member Nick Bolgiano, who does some number crunching for Minitab, Inc., gave the evening's presentation: an analysis of winter bird population trends in eastern North America based on Christmas Count data. After a brief discussion on human participation in the counts over the past four decades, Nick turned his attention to eight species of birds associated with grasslands and open areas. He spent a lot of time talking about Ring-necked Pheasants. CBC data show that this species is dependent upon somewhat inefficient farming practices; as the U.S. government phased out set-aside land programs and farming practices became more efficient with respect to land use and harvesting, the pheasant population has undergone a sharp decline. It is unlikely that pheasant populations would exist in many areas of the eastern U.S. at present without periodic restocking programs. Northern Bobwhite, the second species discussed, shows the same population trends as Ring-necked Pheasant, for similar reasons. Eastern Meadowlark shows similar trends for wintering populations, but it should be remembered that this bird is essentially a migrant or summer resident in the areas examined. Nick looked at the next four species, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, and European Starling, as one group. The center of abundance for this group shows a two-pronged pattern, with one line angling in from the midwest and the other paralleling the east coast; both converge in southeastern PA. Population centers have moved northward along the east coast and have declined somewhat farther inland, probably due to modern farming practices. Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles tend to winter closer to the coast, while cowbirds and starlings tend to stay inland. The final species examined with Sharp-shinned Hawk. The decline of this bird along the coast is well documented, but CBC data show that inland wintering populations have increased substantially. One reason for this is the ban on DDT, but Nick wondered whether the increase is also due to the wintering blackbird populations, since sharp-shinned population centers are near blackbird population centers. This presentation had no bird or scenery slides&emdash;just raw data and graphs. In was interesting nonetheless, and Nick fielded a few questions at its conclusion.
September 22, 1999. Pennsylvania birder extraordinaire Deuane Hoffman gave the evening's presentation, a slide show on his 1993 trip across North America. Deuane's objective was just to see birds, not break any records, but he managed to find 634 species, a personal record. Deuane's travels took him to Vermont and Canada, coastal New Jersey, Florida, Texas, southeast Arizona, California, the coast and mountains of Oregon and Washington, Jasper National Park in Canada, Montana, Wyoming, including Yellowstone National Park, Colorado, North Carolina, and finished in Pennsylvania, with a slide of a Ruffed Grouse, no less. The presentation was extensive and the bird slides numerous. But Deuane also had slides of mammals, lizards, plants, and other things, as well as shots of some spectacular scenery. A question-and-answer session finished the presentation.
October 27, 1999. The evening's speaker was Ed Perry, an officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ed talked about the construction of Interstate 99 from Bald Eagle in Blair County to Port Matilda in Centre County. Two alignments were proposed for this route: one following the existing route 220 in the Bald Eagle Valley, and another following the Bald Eagle Ridge. The valley route would have affected more wetlands, but these are of a poorer quality than those near the ridgetop. The ridgetop alignment will cause much more forest fragmentation, and Ed talked about these effects at length. Although the valley alignment would have had the least impact environmentally, it appears that the ridgetop option will be the route chosen. Ed noted that, had environmental groups become involved with the discussion as soon as the alignments were proposed, the outcome may have been different. There were many questions during and after the presentation, but nobody in the room could figure out, based on conservation, economic, and safety issues, why the ridgetop option was chosen.
November 10, 1999. Lou Moore, an agricultural economist at Penn State, gave the evening's presentation. The subject was storks in eastern Europe, but Lou also spent a lot of time discussing the economy of the area, both before and after the fall of Communism. Lou talked extensively about Poland. There were a number of slides of storks and their huge nests on houses, castles, and in trees. These nests are rarely disturbed, since Polish farmers consider it good luck to have a stork nest.
January 27, 1000. The evening's program was a departure from the usual Bird Club presentations. The subject was the birds of Shakespeare, and the speaker was John Moore, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Penn State. Dr. Moore did not talk about Lesser Black-backed Gulls or Willow Warblers, nor did he confine his discussion entirely to Shakespeare, but he did focus on three rather generic birds: doves, nightingales, and falcons. Biology was of little significance to this presentation; the birds were discussed for what they represented. The dove is a symbol of constancy in relationships, as well as a bearer of grace, and Dr. Moore quoted from Spenser's The Faerie Queene to illustrate this. The nightingale is noted for its beautiful song. Dr. Moore read extensively from a section of Ovid's Metamorphoses in which the heroine's tongue is removed so she cannot tell of the injustice done to her. But she is ultimately transformed into a nightingale, and her song becomes her testimony. For falcons, Dr. Moore focused on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, pointing out Shakespeare's allusions to falconry techniques when he describes how the heroine is eventually subdued. Dr. Moore noted that the stories of the nightingale and falcon have relevance to present-day women's issues. He concluded with a musical recording based on a section of Love's Labours Lost, featuring an owl and cuckoo duet, and answered questions after the presentation.