In-town bird watching
If you live in the central Susquehanna valley, be it Sunbury, Lewisburg, Muncy, Williamsport, Jersey Shore, Lock Haven, or towns in between, there is every good reason to enjoy birdwatching in-town. Birds are literally everywhere. Not just in so called “natural” areas. And to our joy, they have adapted to, and adopted the urban scene in amazing ways.
So, whether you are looking out your backyard window, waiting for the bus, walking across campus, enjoying a park bench, strolling a street, walking on your lunch break, parking your car at the super market, going to the hospital or your worship event, there are birds to see and be taken in by their size, shape, color, sound, and behavior.
BIRDING IN THE CITY
Close-ups: with concentrated human activity (people chatting, street traffic, businesses, restaurants, etc.) the birds, being used to their human companions, are more approachable (aka parking lot with pigeons, “black birds,” starlings, crows, grackles, gulls, house sparrows). For example, carefully look at a pigeon (Rock Dove), notice the color variations.
Sighting: often movement is the initial birdwatching clue, and not necessarily vocalization. You learn to ignore the urban din.
Variety: so called countryside species are in town, if you look carefully — wrens (House and Carolina), American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Mockingbirds, sparrows (House, Song, Chipping, and White Throated), Brown Thrashers, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatches — just to name a few.
Avian Niches: birds are attracted to sites providing food, water, security and shelter, either on site, or nearby. Bird presence is not always predictable, but when you are lucky, ask yourself why. Plan to revisit those parks, athletic fields, campuses, cemeteries etc. that seem to be attractive.
Stop and Look: take a moment and observe a hedge or a tree for instance: often birds are waiting for you to walk by. When on the river walk, note that some birds are attracted to calm water, others to rough; rocky water edges and river islands when water is low, each have their attraction; trees with limbs hanging over water are used by divers.
Look Up: the city is vertical and provides “cliff-like” sites. There are bird friendly ledges like Peregrine Falcons on the SE top corner of the Genetti Hotel as they keep an eye on pigeons. Until recently, Ravens used a Broad Street Montoursville building facade (see Ravens below). Market Street Bridge has fledged falcons. Hundreds of pigeons at a time can be seen neatly spaced like soldiers on electrical wires right over the beltway traffic.
Night Life: It’s not a purely human experience. Hundreds of crows are known to be drawn in the winter to inviting lights and warmer temperatures (see below Lycoming Audubon’s successful relocation work). Night Hawks and Chimney Swifts fly overhead in summer evenings at Bowman Field’s baseball park.
Binoculars: Of course, they are a helpful tool, but you should not forgo the joy of appreciating birds as you are about your everyday routine. The more you pause, look and listen, the more you will enjoy identification. When you are ready, be more intentional by walking with a friend or participating in an Audubon field trip.
CLOSER LOOK AT FIVE SPECIES SEEN IN-TOWN
These first three are members of the “crow family.” They are all known for their intelligence and problem solving abilities and are all found in our central Susquehanna valley, each distinguished by size, call and weight:
Fish Crow: Wt. 10 oz. Call: simple, short nasal cah. Smallest of the three and often confused with the Common Crow but are actually two-thirds the size. Note the diminutive vocalization. It is migratory, rather than domestic like most crows and all ravens, and is found most generally at beaches, bays and along inland waterways like the Susquehanna.
They feed on water invertebrates (soft animals without backbone, like found in the Susquehanna) and therefore you might see them drop mollusk shells on rocks. They are opportunists, taking advantage of human food leftovers at supermarkets and restaurants. Next time at Wegman’s park at a distance, walk slowly, look and especially listen for these birds.
American/Common Crow: Wt. 1 lb. Call: full-voiced hoarse carrr. Our most numerous member of the crow family, exhibiting at least three levels of communal gatherings: feeding in smaller day time groups; staging in larger groups in the late afternoon; and roosting in yet larger groups overnight. We are learning that these evening assembles apparently provide social contact and communication, especially between domestic (local) and migratory individuals.
Interestingly, roosting in large numbers overwhelm downtown trees and buildings creating a fuss between crows and people. This phenomenon is particularly true in smaller cities situated with surrounding farm land. Over the ’18-19 winter (Nov to Feb) Lycoming Audubon, in cooperation with Williamsport’s City Council, assembled small groups of birders, three times a week, with strobe lights in hand, and relocated the center city roost sites. A win-win for city and birds.
Common Raven: Wt. 2.6 lb. Call: deep baritone croak: Our largest “crow,” a powerful flyer, acrobatic during mating season, and lives in long term pair bonding relationship. The male feeds the incubating female. They favor the mountainous or hilly areas but will nest on human structures seemingly comfortable with these “urban cliffs.” And, of course, we are reminded of the iconic Tower of London Ravens. Unfortunately, up until this season, a perennially appearing pair, repaired and maintained nests on a building mid-block Broad Street, Montoursville.
House Sparrow: Wt. 0.98 oz. Call: monotonous, identical chirps with constant chatter in flocks. This is one sparrow that ties together the urban backyard with the farm yard — house Sparrows are all over the place. Often taken for granted, and even derided, they have an interesting spot in our avian history, and they make an important contribution to our understanding of bird life.
An Old World bird introduced in Brooklyn in the 1850s, with the hope of reducing insects, but within 50 year had spread coast to coast. They became the dominate species in the city with available food and ability to have three broods per year. Their numbers were reduced when automobiles became dominate (grain fed horses were no longer on the street leaving seed in their manure).
House Sparrows remind us that feathers are a marvel and require constant care. They often follow a water bath with a dust bath, most likely an anti-parasitic function. Whereas many birds often eat twice a day, House Sparrows are opportunists, hanging out around people places like restaurants and parking lots. And, like Starlings, and some fish species interestingly, move in rapid, tight, just-inches-apart, formation that Ornithologists call murmuration.
Ring-billed Gull: Wt. 1.1 lb. Call: long, level, slow, high scratchy quality.
Cornell Labs suggests “comfortable around humans, they frequent parking lots, garbage dumps, beaches, and fields, sometimes by the hundreds. These are the gulls you’re most likely to see far away from coastal areas-in fact, most Ring-billed Gulls nest in the interior of the continent, near freshwater. A black band encircling the yellow bill helps distinguish adults from other gulls.”
These spring time visitors to the central Susquehanna valley winter in the southern US, down to the south Mexico and the Bahamas. They are on their way to southern Canada (you may have seen thousands at Niagara Falls). Several years ago on an Easter Saturday, enjoying the river walk, I experienced Ring-bills all over the place, especially Wegman’s Parking lot and on the Susquehanna River. Coincidently, water insects were emerging and the gulls were taking full advantage of the bonanza. They would fly up over the water to the Hepburn St. dam and float down to Market Street, fly back up to the dam and float again, and again, gorging themselves on tasty Lycoming County invertebrates.
My Dunkard mother would say to we five kids, when she perceived boredom, “go for a walk, the dawdle will do you good.” In her mind it was not a waste of time but expected curiosity and discovery. As we live in our COVID-safe bubbles, this might be an appropriate time to get ready for better days ahead. Lycoming and Seven Mountains Audubon Societies would like to give you permission to dawdle. We need the cleansing joy of wonder. As British novelist, Roald Dahl said, “a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest of men (and women).” Birding now and again, fits the bill, no matter where you live, work or play, or what the reality of our times might be.
Rev Larry Waltz (LNRWaltz@aol.com) is on the board of director’s of Lycoming Audubon Society, and coordinates field trips. He is a retired American Baptist pastor and Regional Executive Minister (Bishop)
BIRD LORE is produced by the Lycoming Audubon Society (serving Lycoming and Clinton Counties) and Seven Mountains Audubon (serving Union, Snyder, Northumberland and Columbia Counties). Information about these National Audubon Society chapters can be found at http://lycomingaudubon.blogspot.com and http://sevenmountainsaudubon.org