World Class Birding at the Pennsylvania Club
by Bob Bryant
"So how did you do this morning?"
"Not bad. Got three excellent Smallmouth, a nice Pike, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, some Bufflehead, and seven Warblers. Forty species in all."
It's not just for fishing anymore. The Pennsylvania Club is also a first-class birding hotspot. As many as 300 species of birds might be seen in the vicinity during the spring and summer on or around Pennsylvania Island. This spring, 74 bird species were identified in a single week, all within a short boat ride of the Club. (See the list for May 11-17, 2008.) Two-thirds of this number were seen or heard within a five minute walk of the Club. Half could be seen or heard without leaving the Club porches. Over 30 species were identified during two hours fishing at Doc Henderson's "Miss Lilly's Pond" (the inlet containing Howl Island).
Birds. They come in a wonderful variety of sizes, shapes, colors and songs. They are there each time you walk out of the Club. Bright yellow Goldfinches perching on the power lines. Barn Swallows with red throats and deeply-forked tails plucking insects out of the air. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers pecking irregularly on pine trunks near the Quailey Shelter, tapping them for sweet sap. Common Yellowthroats with their black masks skulking in the bushes. Magnolia Warblers with golden yellow breasts and black necklaces watching from the pine trees. Herring Gulls on the telephone pole waiting for a handout.
Birds. They're easy to find, especially if you recognize their songs. White-throated Sparrows whistle a clear, sweet, "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody." Goldfinches say "Potato chip" when they take off. Prairie Warblers sometimes deliver their buzzy, ascending notes from the rail of the front porch. Ovenbirds holler "Teacher! Teacher!" from the woods. And the sentimental favorite, Black-capped Chickadees, softly sing "Hi, sweetie," from nearby trees. At dusk, the Whip-poor-wills begin loudly calling their name. If one of them settles in next to your bedroom window, you're in for a long night. And nothing captures the pristine Northern lakes under the moonlight like the wail of a Loon.
Birds. Some species like the Ruffed Grouse and Common Merganser brave the winter around Pennsylvania Island, but most species fly south to warmer climes, perhaps as far as to the tip of South America. The Barn Swallows nesting in the boathouse may have spent February in Chile. The White-crowned Sparrow under the bush by the grill may have wintered in Mexico, and be on its way to the Arctic Circle. And the Winter Wren singing in the woods may have spent the winter in New Castle. Migration is not a cake walk. It has been estimated that as many as one-half of the migrants heading south will not make it back.
Birds. At the PA Club, they're free. People pay guides to watch male Woodcocks dazzle eligible females with aerial acrobatics, "peenting," chipping, and squeaking all the while. They do the same thing 50 feet from the Club porch in mid-May, starting at 9:00 PM sharp. People pay guides to help them find the brightly-colored warblers. Fourteen species were found around the PA Club.
Looking for an alternative to Victorian novels while up North? Try reading The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. It's about three otherwise grown men running around North America, from the Aleutians to Key West, trying to see as many birds as possible in 365 days. They spend big money, weather harsh elements, and unashamedly lie to each other about how well they are doing. Worse than fishermen.
Want to try birding? It can add a very satisfying dimension to the Pennsylvania Club fishing experience, as well as be an alternative for family members that are only marginally obsessive-compulsive about fishing. Bring some 7x or 8x binoculars. Higher magnification than this requires a very steady hand (or gyroscopic stabilization) to maintain a clear view. The wider the field of vision, the easier it is to locate birds through the binoculars. Try out a pair of 8x42 binoculars before you buy. Also bring a field guide. Peterson's Birds of Eastern and Central North America is a good starter. The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America is also good. It shows more variation for each species, but is a little more difficult for beginners to use to compare one species to another.
An excellent way to become familiar with bird sounds is listing to Peterson's CDs titled Birding By Ear and More Birding By Ear. If you want to call your favorite birds in for a good look, you can use a battery powered speaker from Radio Shack and an MP3 player such as an iPod loaded with bird sounds from Stoke's Field Guide To Bird Songs-Eastern Region. One of the better websites for birding is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All about Birds.
Keep a list. Post it on the Pennsylvania Club website so others will know what species are there to enjoy. Like me, you may find more birds than fish.