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YNA 2001 Winners Hero

Twelve winning essays from the YNA 2001 contest year

Birding Sector 7


The bitter cold bites at my uncovered nose and numbs my feet as I slowly crunch through the three inches of clean, white snow that had, nearly a week ago, coated the ground in Mingo Creek County Park, as well as the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania. I begin, for perhaps the tenth time, to question my sanity. Normal teenagers do not wake up at two in the morning and drive south for half an hour to look for owls. Normal teenagers have not even heard of the Christmas Bird Count, an international citizen science bird count that takes place within two weeks of the 25th of December, and the reason for my early awakening. This is the fourth Christmas Bird Count that I have participated in, but it is my first time birding in Mingo Creek and only my second time owling.

Eastern screech owl

My companion, Chuck Tague, and I have been driving through Mingo Creek and stopping in areas with good owl habitat -- thicker patches of deciduous trees. This particular stop is our third. Chuck, who is a far more experienced birder than I, stops suddenly along the road and presses the play button on the tape recorder that he carries at waist level.

The recorder projects the eerie call of an Eastern screech owl (Otus asio) through an otherwise silent portion of Penn's woods. The call does not sound at all like the hoots that many believe to be typical of owl calls; it sounds more like a high-pitched, spiraling horse whinny. Chuck and I both wait anxiously with our ears pricked and our eyes alertly scanning the trees for movement. A light breeze causes the branches to sway slowly up and down and side to side, making it very difficult to notice any other movement in the trees. On our first two stops we had not seen or heard an owl of any kind. It seems that this site as well is doomed to be a disappointment. Perhaps the temperature, in the low teens,is keeping the owls from calling, or maybe Chuck and I had made too much noise walking from the car. Just as I am losing my final shred of hope that I will see or hear an owl, an owl almost directly overhead responds to the tape. In my surprise at finally hearing an owl at such an unexpected moment, I almost miss the call of another owl directly behind us on the other side of the road. I turn, hoping to catch a glimpse of the second owl, just as the first owl lands on a branch 20 feet over our heads. Chuck and I are both showered with ice shaken loose by the owl's landing. Quickly, Chuck shines his flashlight above us so we can see the owl, but it has already flown off. Unfortunately, the owl across the street stopped calling while we were occupied with the owl above us. We are both contented and speak quietly as we hustle back to the relative warmth of Chuck's car.

By the time we leave Mingo Creek, it is past five. We have walked over a mile on foot, driven six miles in the car,heard five Eastern screech owls and one great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). Shortly after leaving Mingo Creek, Chuck reaches up to remove his hat, only to find the brim covered with feces. It seems that the first owl we saw dropped more than ice on his head. We pull over and Chuck cleans his hat and hands in the snow. When he climbs back into the car he tells me, "Sometimes you get an owl, and sometimes the owl gets you."


Map of Nottingham in Washington County.
This map depicts the location of the following marked birding site:
1. Major roads in Mingo Creek Country Park

It is a fifteen minute trip north to the following three owling sites: Canonsburg Lake, Peter's Lake Park, and a parking lot off of West McMurray Road. At Canonsburg Lake we have high hopes of hearing a second great horned owl. We drive upto the lake and step out of the car. On the shore Chuck hoots like a great horned owl, using a small call somewhat similar in shape to a turkey or duck call. Unfortunately, we receive no response to this call or to the screech owl tape. Somewhat disappointed, we get in the car and travel a short distance to Peter's Lake Park. Upon arriving, we hear a screech owl almost immediately, so we continue down the road about a hundred yards and play the tape again. By now the sky is noticeably lightened and we know morning will arrive soon. Chuck plays the tape, and without pause lifts his flashlight and shines it into the trees, right onto an Eastern screech owl. To my surprise, the bird does not fly away;it simply turns its head in our direction and stares at us. It also emits a call that we have not yet heard and that sounds like a softer, mellower version of the screech owl call we have been hearing. It reminds me of a cat purring.

Map of Peter's Township in Washington County (Click to enlarge.)
This map depicts the locations of the following marked birding sites:
2. Canonsburg Lake Site
3. Peter's Lake Park Site
4. Parking lot on West McMurry Road
5. Former Railroad
6. Winter Wren Site
7. Coal Reservoir Site

We have an excellent look at the magnificent hunter. Of the first six owls we have identified, we have not seen a single bird, and if it had not been for Chuck's sharp eyesight, we would have missed this one as well. Eastern screech owls exist in both red and gray morphs. I notice that the screech owl before us is of the red morph, and Chuck explains that in western Pennsylvania, the ratio between the two morphs is approximately three gray morph birds to every two red morph birds. We are disappointed, however, that we are again unable to find a second great horned owl.

By the time we reach the parking lot off of West McMurray Road, it is already morning. We identify an eighth and final screech owl, which we hear far off in the distance. Chuck and I spend the very early morning driving through a scrubby,grassy area in hopes of finding a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), but we are disappointed again.

All told, we are quite satisfied with the results of our owling trip. We finished with eight Eastern screech owls and a great horned owl. Unfortunately, we did not identify a barred owl (Strix varia), and we also missed some of the less common birds, such as the Northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus), the long-eared owl (Asio otus), and the short-eared owl. These omissions, however, do not discourage us greatly.

We now drive to the residence of Kris Ross, who joins us for the morning and afternoon portions of the Christmas Bird Count. In her yard we recognize dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), among many others. Once Kris is ready, we depart and meet with Dan and Sam Tatomir, who also join us for the remainder of the count, near an appointed intersection. Dan and Sam take a road to the right, while Chuck, Kris, and I take a road to the left, a former railroad track, which has since been torn up and paved. Both groups meet after about a mile when the two trails again meet. The most prevalent species seem to have been northern cardinal, American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis), and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). Perhaps the most interesting bird identified along this route was the somewhat uncommon pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which flew overhead. We continue on again to a cooling reservoir near a coal mine. Along the way, though, Chuck sees something out of the corner of his eye and slams on the brakes. We all pile out of the car in time to see an uncommon, elusive winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes).

This is a bird that I saw last year at the Christmas Bird Count in Washington, Pennsylvania, but I had barely gotten a glimpse of it then. This winter wren is a very special and unexpected treat for me, as it is the first time I am able to see one clearly. Unfortunately, the wren soon disappears into a nearby thicket, and we decide to head on to the coalmine lake.

The coal mine lake is an especially good spot to look for waterfowl because it is warmer than most of the nearby bodies of water and rarely freezes over. Here we see over 300 Canada geese (Branta canadensis). We also see two American coots (Fulica americana), which are black, white-billed rails that behave very similarly to ducks. While the American coot is not very abundant in western Pennsylvania, it is easy to find any time of the year. Through the steam rising off the surface of the lake, we can make out a duck of some kind heading towards us, and when it is within sight we are pleased to see that it is a ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris). The ring-necked duck is uncommon in Pennsylvania and often difficult to find outside of migration. This being my first sighting of this particular species, I take special note of its dark coloration and its distinctive white and gray flanks.

We stroll a little further to a stream into which the reservoir empties. Here we find almost 200 mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). We are very content as we head back towards the cars. Just before getting into his car, Dan Tatomir notices a hawk resting in plain view on a tree limb a hundred yards distant. He correctly identifies this bird as a Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii). Usually this species is seen in flight, so it is very interesting to get a clear,long look at one at rest. We drive down the road along the stream and park in the same parking lot where Chuck and I had stopped for our eighth screech owl earlier this morning. We walk along the stream and see about 200 more mallards, a wood duck (Aix sponsa), and a belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon).

My last stop is at Canonsburg Lake. For the second time today, it is very disappointing. Here we see only one northern cardinal in 15 minutes of birding. Discouraged in my final stop, I get in the car, and we all head to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, I am not able to continue birding further into the afternoon because of a conflicting appointment. Next year, however, I will return to spend a day learning about the avifauna in my region and participating in the 102nd Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count is important for many reasons. It collects a massive amount of data on the abundance of bird species throughout the United States and other parts of the world. It also gets many people involved who would have otherwise never learned about the diverse, rich avifauna that our world is privileged to have. As the Senegalese naturalist Baba Dioum said: "For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught." The Christmas Bird Count is truly a worthwhile and important event.

  The following is the sum of data collected by Area 7 of the newly founded Pittsburgh-South Hills Audubon Christmas Bird Circle.
  Pittsburgh-South Hills
Audubon Christmas Bird Circle
  Sector 7 (Canonsburg, Washington County, and surrounding areas)
  December 23, 2000, 4:00 am 4:00 pm
  Owling: One party of two observers
Three party hours in the field, 11 miles by car, one mile on foot
  Birding: Two parties with a total of five observers
Nine party hours in the field, 65 miles by car, 10 miles on foot
9 Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
312 Canada goose (Branta canadensis)
1 Wood duck (Aix sponsa)
467 Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
1 Ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris)
3 Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
6 Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
2 American kestrel (Falco sparverius)
2 American coot (Fulica americana)
12 Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)
8 Eastern screech owl (Otus asio)
1 Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)
2 Belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)
9 Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
23 Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
1 Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
2 Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
24 Bluejay (Cyanocitta cristata)
12 American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
55 Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)
29 Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)
8 White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
8 Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
1 Winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
11 Eastern bluebird (Sialis sialia)
1 American robin (Turdus migratorius)
3 Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
114 European starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
1 Yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata)
65 Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
1 American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea)
30 Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
22 White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
6 White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
31 Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)
10 House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
21 American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
66 House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
38 Total Species
1380 Total Individuals


McWilliams, Gerald M. and Daniel W. Brauning. The Birds of Pennsylvania. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

"Washington County Pennsylvania Township Maps." RootWeb. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on January 2, 2001:

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