Fern Hollow's holiday bird count a success

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

John Orndorff Jr. has had his eyes on the skies each Christmas season for 35 years.

Each year, the Glen Orborne man gathers his two sons and one dedicated couple to help him count birds for the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count.

But this year, he decided to ask Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley Heights to take over and recruit more volunteers.

It paid off.

Stacey Widenhofer, one of the center's environmental educators, gathered 12 area volunteers who spotted 32 different species and a total of 721 birds in a four-and-a-half hour period.

Although Fern Hollow has participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count for several years in February, this was the first time center volunteers gathered for the Christmas Bird Count.

“We were able to get the word out in our publication and get some volunteers to help,” Widenhofer said.

The volunteers traveled to the same area in Franklin Park where Orndorff has been conducting the annual counts.

Widenhofer explained that over the years, certain bird-count circles have been established in the area. Within the Pittsburgh circle, there are about eight subgroups, including the Franklin Park area.

Each year, volunteers report data to the National Audubon Society from those same areas, so that data came be compared and changes noted.

Widenhofer joined Orndorff ahead of time to walk the route and arranged for volunteers to show him that there “still are people who are enthusiastic about the bird count,” she said.

Orndorff was up and listening for owls at 6:30 that morning, and heard one great horned owl. Widenhofer and the other volunteers joined him an hour later.

“One of the coolest things on our walk was a willow tree. It was home to about seven or eight species of birds like chickadees, robins, crows, juncos, cedar waxwings and starlings, all in one tree,” she said.

The group also saw a Cooper's hawk pursuing a smaller bird.

“It was impressive. He was only about 10 feet from us.”

For the entire Pittsburgh circle, Widenhofer said 80 total different species were reported. All the data was given to Brian Shema, head of the Pittsburgh circle, and he then reported it to the headquarters for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania located at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel.

Widenhofer said one circle of volunteers reported seeing a red-winged blackbird, which is not often seen this time of year, and an oriole also was spotted.

This was the 113th year for the Christmas Bird Count. Data is used to discover certain trends, to assess the health of bird populations determining whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing and if environmental factors had any effect. Data also helps to guide conservation efforts.

For the recent Christmas Bird Count, data from the more than 2,000 circles were reported. To find out more, visit birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

For those who missed being a part of the Christmas Bird Count, another bird event, The Great Backyard Bird Count, will be held Feb. 16 this year.

Widenhofer said although Fern Hollow will host Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, which can earn a badge for their efforts, the event is meant to draw participants in any age group.

“People can sit inside and count birds at their feeders. It's great for kids and families,” she said.

But, people also are welcome to come to Fern Hollow or Sewickley Heights Borough Park to count outside, as well. The Audubon Society also collects data from the event to look at trends or bird populations in certain areas.

After collecting data, participants can log onto the website, birds.audubon.org/great-backyard-bird-count, to record their data.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or jbarron@tribweb.com.

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