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'Citizen scientists' count birds for Audubon Society

| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 7:39 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
A Downy Woodpecker takes flight after being counted during the annual documenting of winter birds in North Park, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013.

An auto body repairman by trade, Al Werling has a thing for tail fins on old hot rods. He also has a natural affinity for tail feathers.

“I've been an outdoorsman my whole life,” said Werling, 54, of Hampton, who spent Saturday helping with the 114th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. “I'd rather sleep under a pine tree than in a bed.”

Volunteers like Werling joined 13 circles and fanned out across the region to document bird species as part of what the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania calls the world's oldest “citizen science” project. Their counts will be reported on Sunday to the society.

More than 2,300 groups nationwide started counting birds on Dec. 14 and will continue through Jan. 5.

Findings will be published in the society's annual report, “American Birds.”

Werling traveled 33 miles to count about a third of the 30 bird species normally seen around Hampton.

“It's like shooting ducks in a bucket,” said Werling, who has participated in the bird count for 17 years. “I know where these birds are going to be.”

Among those he counted were 275 rock pigeons on a power line and 13 wild turkeys roosting in a treetop. He saw three great blue herons, a belted kingfisher and an eastern bluebird. He thought he spotted his favorite bird, the spiky-topped cedar waxwing. But he couldn't be certain, so he didn't count it.

“They're just bad,” he said. “They hang out in packs like motorcycle gangs.”

Warmer temperatures and sunny, blue skies made counting more difficult, he said.

Stacey Widenhofer said the Fern Hollow numbers might not be what they were last year.

“I think the numbers are down, but is it weather related? I don't know,” said Widenhofer, 39, of Zelienople, who works as an environmental educator at the Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley.

Among the species she and a dozen other volunteers counted in the Franklin Park area were nuthatches, cardinals, crows and starlings as well as several bluebirds and two barred owls.

“It was definitely what we expected,” she said. “A lot of your typical backyard birds.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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