Birding field trips, festivals unite enthusiasts

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Memorable birding opportunities begin in late winter and continue through June.

With just a little planning you can find great field trips close to home. Local nature centers and birding clubs often sponsor field trips throughout the year. Or maybe plan a more distant trip to one of the many birding festivals offered nationwide.
For a list of birding festivals, Google “2015 birding festivals.”

Let me tease you with a few suggestions, and remember, beginners are welcome on birding trips.

  • Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Birding Club (www.3rbc.org) is very active and sponsors field trips throughout the year.
    On March 25, member Tom Byrnes (724-715-7184) will lead evening walks to see the American woodcock’s “sky dance.” Woodcock occur throughout the east, and many nature centers and bird clubs offer similar field trips.
  • A great place to visit from now through the end of March is the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area (www.pgc.state.pa.us, then click on “Education,” “Visitor Centers,” Middle Creek”) on the Lancaster-Lebanon County border in eastern Pennsylvania. Here spectacular flocks of snow geese, tundra swans, and a variety of other waterfowl gather during spring migration. Peak numbers of these impressive birds can exceed 50,000 snow geese and 5,000 tundra swans as they migrate north from the Chesapeake Bay to nesting grounds on the tundra. Watching them fill the sky as they sail in to roost is a sight never to be forgotten.
  • Another phenomenon that is taking place right now is the gathering of 200,000 sandhill cranes along the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.

In March, it can be cold and inhospitable, but if you’d like to see hundreds of thousands of birds, it’s the place to be. Ducks and geese cover the shallows and sand bars. As the sun sets in the west, the real show begins. At first, you hear it — the trumpeting calls of sandhill cranes floating down from the sky. Naturalist Paul Johnsgard calls it, “crane music.”

What begins with a handful of birds grows rapidly until thousands of cranes settle in for the night. They approach the river, searching for the right wind and right angle against which to set their wings. Then they sail in effortlessly and land in water just a few inches deep. It’s a breathtaking sight, and birds continue to arrive for hours. Even after it’s too dark to see the birds, you can hear them continue to arrive.

On the river the cranes are safe from predators as they rest between their winter homes in New Mexico and Texas and their nesting grounds in Alaska and northern Canada. When I was there many years ago, a local biologist told me there were about 250,000 cranes on the river that night. It’s an image I’ll never forget.

Birding festivals

A complete list of birding festivals is beyond the scope of a single column, but let me tempt you with a few other birding destinations.

  • From April 27 through May 2, the New River Birding and Nature Festival (www.birding-wv.com) welcomes birders to West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River. Each day field trips, some lasting all day, fan out across the region. Though almost every eastern warbler can be seen at this event, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and bald eagles rarely fail to disappoint.
  • Warblers also highlight the Presque Isle Audubon Birding Festival (www.presqueisleaudubon.org) in Erie, Pa., May 8-10. Limited in size to just 150 birders, the Presque Isle fest is a great place to catch the spring migration as birds stop to rest before crossing Lake Erie.
  • At the opposite end of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory hosts the “Biggest Week in American Birding” May 8-17. It draws birders from all across the country. Find details at www.biggestweekinamericanbirding.com.
  • And if you’d like to be one of the few people who have ever seen an endangered Kirtland’s warbler, travel to northern Michigan on June 6 for the Kirtland’s Warbler Festival (www.kirtlandswarbler.org). Two field trips are designed for birders to add this rare species to their life lists

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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