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Sewickley Heights boasts popular spot for birdwatching

| Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, 1:36 p.m.
National Aviary ornithologist Robert Mulvihill stands for a photo at the North Side facility Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Mulvihill also leads activities introducing birding to adults and children in the Sewickley Valley.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
National Aviary ornithologist Robert Mulvihill stands for a photo at the North Side facility Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Mulvihill also leads activities introducing birding to adults and children in the Sewickley Valley.

Fall is a great time of year for watching birds, and Sewickley Valley residents have a great local place to do it, National Aviary ornithologist Bob Mulvihill says.

The park's Butterfly Fields Trail is popular with local birders, and in the fall, Mulvihill said, they can see about 30 species of warblers that are on their way to their winter home in the tropics.

More types of birds can be seen locally in the fall and spring because, in addition to the birds that live here year-round, birds that are migrating to their winter homes further south or summer homes further north are coming through, he said.

Many birders enjoy pursuing their hobby in the fall because it is more challenging to see birds then; they have lost their breeding colors and don't sing as much because singing is related to attracting mates, Mulvihill said.

“There's something about the fall season for birders,” he said. “There's a bit of an edge to it.”

There are, however, more birds to see than in the spring, he said.

“The abundance of birds is about five times as great because of all the young birds produced during the summer,” said Mulvihill, 58, of Pleasant Hills. He has worked at the aviary on Pittsburgh's North Side for six years and previously worked at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve in Westmoreland County.

Sewickley Heights Borough Park is a great rest stop for warblers and other migrating songbirds because it offers inviting habitats and freedom from the human disturbances that come with a more urbanized landscape, he said.

Most songbirds are nocturnal migrants and after flying all night, they need a place to rest and feed when dawn breaks, Mulvihill said.

Birds approaching Pittsburgh from the northeast naturally would veer away from the city, and the park is elevated a little, compared to the surrounding landscape, which makes it attractive, he said.

The peak time for seeing the widest variety of birds there in the fall is the second half of September, Mulvihill said.

That is a good time for seeing neotropical migratory birds that breed in Canada or the United States and spend the winter in Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, or Central or South America, Mulvihill said. Those birds include wood warblers, flycatchers and scarlet tanagers, he said.

October brings a different set of birds, those with a final destination of the southern United States. They include sparrows and juncos, Mulvihill said.

The September birds tend to be insect eaters, while the October birds are seed eaters, Mulvihill said.

Pointing to a sea of wild sunflowers along the Butterfly Fields Trail in the borough park, Mulvihill said that area will be full of birds in October. The sunflowers are tiny and look like black-eyed Susans but will have heads of seeds next month.

“Come October, when this has all gone to seed, it will be full of birds,” Mulvihill said.

The trail can be accessed from the parking lot at the end of Hallaway Road in the park. Go to the far end of the parking lot and turn right on the trail near the birdhouse.

Bob VanNewkirk, president of the Three Rivers Birding Club, which has more than 300 members, echoed Mulvihill's enthusiasm for watching birds at Sewickley Heights Borough Park.

“It is a terrific place to go birding” said VanNewkirk, 69, of Ross.

He said the club's outings are a great way for people to learn more about birds.

“Newcomers are always welcome because every birder has started out as a new birder,” he said.

Participants do not have to be club members, and the outings are open to people of all ages, VanNewkirk said.

The best time to go birdwatching along the Butterfly Fields Trail will be early in the morning, within an hour of sunrise, and be sure to bring binoculars, Mulvihill said.

“Birders look for any little movement,” he said.

They look for “the patches of color, stripes and streaks” — called field marks — so they can identify birds using a field guide, he said.

The Butterfly Fields area of the trail is a good place to see a variety of birds because of the diverse plant life, said Mulvihill, as he pointed to herbaceous plants, shrubs, saplings and larger trees.

“There's a niche for every little bird,” he said.

People also can spend time with birds in Sewickley Heights Borough Park at night between Oct. 5 and Dec. 2 by participating in Project Owlnet, an effort to band northern saw-whet owls as part of a North American study of the species' migration and population dynamics.

“It's the smallest owl in the eastern United States. It's the cutest owl in the eastern United States,” Mulvihill said.

Volunteers set up 40-foot-long nets made of a fine black mesh on a portion of the Pine Tree Trail that has a lot of evergreens just before dark and turn on a machine that plays owl calls in the midst of them. Then they walk away and return every half hour until midnight to see if any owls have been caught and band them.

Mulvihill said he will be there every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night, except when it is very windy or raining steadily. People of all ages are welcome to join him. The meeting place is the parking lot at the end of Hallaway Road.

Participants have an opportunity to do some stargazing in between net checks, Mulvihill said.

Initially, he said, he didn't have a special interest in owls and took on the banding project because someone needed to do it in the Pittsburgh area.

Now, however, he is an enthusiastic fan of northern saw-whet owls.

“I'm quite enamored with these birds,” Mulvihill said.

In their world, they are predators, but “to us, they're just cute and cuddly,” he said.

Madelyn Dinnerstein is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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