Volunteer birders tally 80 species for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count
When an O'Hara man spotted one of the birds of summer — a bright orange-and-black Baltimore oriole — at his bird feeder during last weekend's snowstorm, Audubon Society officials didn't believe him.
The sighting of the male oriole, which lives here only in the spring and summer, will set a first-time record for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count, Brian Shema said. Sherma serves as compiler for the effort as well as operations director for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.
Also topping Dec. 29's local bird count was the state-endangered short-eared owl discovered in the Oakmont area.
Now in its 113th year nationally, the annual so-called Christmas bird count is the longest running volunteer nature survey in the world, according to the Audubon Society.
About 100 volunteers showed up for the Pittsburgh area count, which began in 1961 and covers a 15-mile radius centered in Pittsburgh's North Hills. Other counts in the region and across the country have been scheduled from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5.
The volunteer birders tallied roughly 30,000 individuals for the Pittsburgh count, according to unofficial estimates from Shema.
The O'Hara oriole
A couple of weeks ago, David Berman of O'Hara enrolled in Christmas Bird Count training at Audubon's local headquarters at Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel.
Berman, 66, has always found the event intriguing.
“I have bird feeders in my yard but never had any formal training,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting to be involved.”
So, the fledging birdwatcher sat with his binoculars and started to tally all the cardinals, blue jays and sparrows visiting his feeder for the official count.
“There were all these colorful birds and in the midst of them, I saw something that was bright orange.” Berman said.
There, at his woodpecker feeder, along with the red-bellied woodpeckers, was the oriole.
“I had seen them before but never at my feeder,” he said. However, he admits that his girlfriend told him several days earlier that she saw a “Steelers bird” — black and gold — at the feeder.
“I just blew it off and sort of forgot about it,” he said.
When Berman told Audubon officials about what he saw, he kept hearing, “it couldn't be an oriole.”
They brought up other possibilities, pointing out different birds in a bird identification book that likely would be here in the winter.
“This is the case of a new birder turning up one of our rarer birds,” Shema said. “When I first heard, I was skeptical only because of how unusual the sighting is in December.”
Shema needed the sighting confirmed by either another birder or a photograph.
“I had a good feeling that it could be confirmed because he gave a good description,” he said.
At first, Shema said he couldn't imagine why an oriole would frequent a feeder. The bird eats insects in the summer and fruit in the winter.
Then he found out that Berman was using a special blend of woodpecker food from Beechwood Farms that contains raisins — something that a hungry oriole would like.
Sure enough, bird count officials showed up at Berman's home — not only saw the oriole and photographed it — but observed the bird needling out the raisins from the woodpecker feeder's mesh.
Bumper crop of species
The unexpected volume of snow Dec. 29 — up to 6 inches in some sections of the North Hills — made birding a little harder for volunteers to reach the field, so there were a lot of counts taken at bird feeder.
There was a bumper crop of bird species this year, with 80 — a leap above the average of 67 species, Shema said.
“It was just a matter of people finding a number of individual oddball birds,” said Schema, referring to the oriole, short-eared owl and others.
Birders counted a number of duck and gull species plus some northern flyers, such as the red-breasted nuthatch and white-winged crossbill.
A poor yield of pine cone seeds up north has sent some of these winter birds farther south than they're accustomed.
A rare, lesser black-backed gull was found at Point State Park in Pittsburgh.
“It's not uncommon to see rare gulls in the winter at The Point because the water remains open (unfrozen) on the rivers and we have a large population of wintering herring and ring-billed gulls,” Shema said.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.