A whole lot of tundra swans fly by to depend near-record-breaking Christmas birds

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The Audubon Society’s Christmas bird census in Pittsburgh included 78 species, one of the tallest species of birds ever recorded since the Pittsburgh census for 110 years.

The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Census, now in its 121st year of existence, is a bird-watching tradition that serves as the annual bird census and helps scientists track population trends.

Any pandemic wrinkles on the Pittsburgh counting day, December 26th, did not affect the efforts of 216 volunteers, slightly less than usual as most of them were walking around the field at 14 degrees.

Covid-19 restrictions like the breakup of bird watcher groups have changed things a little.

“But it certainly didn’t affect our ability to do this census, and it didn’t affect our reporting,” said Brian Shema, Pittsburgh census compiler. Shema is the Chief Operating Officer of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

On the positive side, the 3 to 6 inches of snow on the ground from the region’s white Christmas brightened up an otherwise dreary brown landscape, increased visibility, and made it easier to see and find birds, he noted.

Due to the high number of species this year, Shema said, some birds choose to spend the winter in the area while others from the south expand their range to include the Pittsburgh area.

Unusual sightings

The great rarity was three black Scots, a large sea duck, found in the Allegheny River near Blawnox.

“These birds should be in the Atlantic by now,” Shema said.

Another strange sighting was a Baltimore oriole visiting a bird feeder in town. While they nest in the region in summer, they winter in the south of Florida to the northern tip of South America.

A highlight for the counting day was the sighting of several flocks of tundra swans that were spotted in flight, with a total of 344 being counted. The large herds are hard to miss and fly in V-formations.

Steve Gosser, a bird census photographer and leader who covered Indiana County, returned to his home in McCandless after the bird census and heard a “wooo wooo” cry from the sky. He looked up to see a line of at least 60 tundra swans flying south.

“Had I got home just a few minutes later, I would have missed her,” he said. “That is a real coincidence.”

The tundra swan is not uncommon as it migrates through the region, but this is a high number to count on, Shema said.

The birds counted, which at least in small numbers roam the region all day, include the turkey vulture, the raven, the fish crow, the eastern towhee and the wood chips.

“The raven and the fish crow are expanding their range,” said Shema. “We saw them come to Pittsburgh for years. The numbers keep coming and we add them to the number of birds. “

Common ravens have recently been spotted in North Park and are commonly found along the river valleys, particularly along the Allegheny River, said Michael Fialkovich of Penn Hills, editor of the Three Rivers Birding Club’s bird report.

“Fish crows can be heard among the thousands of American crows flying to their roosts in the Oakland area at dusk,” he said. Duck Hollow on the Monongahela River has been a regular location for them in recent years, he added.

Finch fever continues this winter, with northern finches such as evening grosbeaks, pine teats, redpolls, and others looming across the area and dropping south into the Pittsburgh area for food.

“The major northern finches disruption this year gave us the grosbeak to count, and that has helped our biodiversity,” Shema said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a contributor to Tribune Review. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, mthomas@triblive.com, or on Twitter.

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