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Birds indicate changes in Alle-Kiski Valley habitat

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Michael Aubele
Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010
 

Their morning of bird-watching nearly done, a group of biologists stopped to marvel Saturday at a creeper hanging upside down in a tree at Murphy's Bottom.

While they watched the small brown bird with a curved bill linger for a few moments before flying to another tree, group members talked about the interesting things they saw during their about 2-mile walk near the Allegheny River.

Their purpose was to count the number and types of birds they saw. Their finds ranged from happening upon a group of robins digging for insects to spotting a yellow-bellied sap sucker, which is a type of woodpecker.

But the highlight of the morning for several group members involved spotting a young bald eagle.

"They're not exactly rare along the Allegheny River, but it's always nice to see a bald eagle," said Kyle Selcer, a Duquesne University biology professor.

Maria Wheeler, 25, a graduate student at Duquesne University, said such sightings are among the reasons she manages to roll out of bed early in the morning to join the group. She's doing genetic research that involves studying bald and golden eagles.

In addition to the contingent from Duquesne University, students and scientists from University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University took part in yesterday's bird count, covering more than 100 acres.

The purpose of the effort was to identify the birds that are wintering in the Pittsburgh region, said Brady Porter, a Duquesne University biology professor. The count marked the fourth at Murphy's Bottom and 111th overall.

Selcer and Porter said documenting shifts in the number and species of birds wintering in the region helps scientists identify such things as landscape and climate changes.

"It's important to have this long-term data," Selcer said.

Porter said group members spotted at least 200 birds from 28 species.

Murphy's Bottom is ideal for counting because of its wildlife habitats -- open fields, woods and a small lake among them.

The group set out at 6:30 a.m. Not long into the walk, Porter said, a great horned owl started to hoot.

"That was the purpose of starting so early," he said.

The group will send its data to the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the data will be sent to the National Audubon Society.

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