Local avid birdwatcher Doug Wentzel takes us through his experiences during his time as a birder and introduces the different species of birds that call Centre County home. From finding his “spark bird” to encountering a “rare” species, Doug details his birding career from beginner to State College Bird Club President while highlighting bird species along the way. Birdwatching is an outdoor, socially distanced activity that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of age or background. With some tips, tricks, and helpful resources Doug helps guide us on how to begin a successful birding hobby in the Centre County region!
You’ve seen Tiger King, now get ready for the Birdwatching King! Doug Wentzel, is a Penn State Professor, Shaver’s Creek program director, naturalist, and the President of the State College Bird Club. He has always been fascinated in the environment and what was going on in the natural world around him. In high school, he was even voted “most likely to become a park ranger” by his peers! Doug began his environmental career as an environmental health specialist in the United States Army and after many years of hard work and dedication, he found himself at Penn State Berks to study wildlife and fishery science. All of this knowledge is being put to great use as Doug teaches environmental interpretation and natural history interpretation to students majoring in recreation, park, and tourism management at Penn State University. Doug has been birding for many years and considers birdwatching an opportunity for him and his peers to “contribute to science”.
He attributes his love of birdwatching to his parents and ornithology professor at Penn State. Doug recounted how it was a tradition for his parents and grandparents to feed their leftover bread and breadcrumbs to the birds in their backyard with him, which allowed him to begin to notice all the different types of birds that resided within his backyard. As he moved on to higher education, he went on many adventures with his ornithology professor at Penn State Berks. This taught him how to identify various types of birds and how to put a name to them. He began officially birding after he encountered his “spark bird” which happened to be an American Redstart Warbler. The term “spark bird” is used by avid birdwatchers to describe the bird species that got them interested in becoming a birder and making birdwatching one of their hobbies. Doug stated that when he saw the American Redstart Warbler flying around, hopping in the trees, and singing with all of its might he was amazed and was captivated by this tiny creature. From then on Doug was hooked. He birds every chance he can as birds are “all around us animating our landscape” and there is always an opportunity to observe a new species.
There are approximately 10,000 species of birds that have been discovered around the world. 275 of these bird species can be found right here in Centre county’s backyard. Doug stated that there are many of these birds that call Centre County and songbirds can be seen on the regular flying through the skies and nesting in the forest trees. Doug mentioned that many of his fellow birders often partake in hawk watches on the surrounding mountains during the annual migrations. But these aren’t the only bird species taking to the Centre county skies. Black Cap Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, and Starlings are commonly spotted by Doug as they enjoy the arboretum bird garden. Doug is devoted to bird conservation, so it was heartwarming to hear him express his excitement about the reemerging population of bald eagles within the Centre County area after a long absence. He is even able to spot a woodpecker or nuthatch every once in a while if he gets lucky! The way Doug animatedly described even the most common of feathered creatures was enough to make anyone eager to birdwatch. He stated that on mornings that he taught lecture he would walk through campus, noticing the goldfinches dancing through the trees while the sunlight accentuated their golden coloring. Just by taking the extra time to notice the world around you like Doug had done each morning on campus with the goldfinches makes the mundane world seem like an enchanting place to be.
With so many birds in the world, flying past with otherworldly speed, how can you tell the species apart? Doug stated that “once you decide that you are curious and want to learn it is quite easy to connect with the other life that is constantly surrounding you”. With a little help from a field guide or Birding app and some dedication to memorization you too can begin to birdwatch. Doug declared that this was no simple task but could be done with a little fervor and time. He recommended using the “Birds of Central Pennsylvania” field guide or downloading the Sibley Field Guide app or Merlin app onto your mobile device. The apps are especially useful as they not only describe the bird’s characteristic information but also contain real-life photos of the bird with recordings of the specific sounds it produces. Doug explained that once you have all of this information it is relatively straightforward to determine the type of bird in front of you based on what you observe and what you expect to observe from each bird species. Expectations can include flight patterns, movements the bird makes, size, sound, color, behavior, and the time of year the bird is spotted. Using sight, sound, and some memorization of what to expect for certain species of bird you can fill out a mental scorecard in order to determine the species of bird you have encountered. Of course, after you have correctly identified your new feathered friend, Doug encourages you to document the sighting on the E-bird website.
Doug was quite insistent that the internet was teeming with helpful information for the birdwatching community to take advantage of. Early on in our conversation, he promoted the E-bird website. E-bird allows every birdwatcher, from beginner to expert, a chance to find bird species and hotspots near them wherever they find themselves. This website is constantly being updated by birdwatchers in the area as anyone can contribute their bird sightings. You can also view details about the bird species, illustrated checklists of the bird species being spotted in your area/around the world, birding hotspots nearby, and view migration routes. The day of the interview, Doug had just added a new sighting to E-bird from his own backyard! The E-bird website is easy to navigate and a great way to begin your own birding career. Doug explained that he commonly came across “listers” who are passionate birders who post to E-bird frequently in hopes of helping update the Centre County “Bird census” and promote bird conservation within the surrounding communities. He also praised the Cornell Ornithology website and YouTube channel which are fantastic resources for birders of all levels as they carry an extensive amount of information on all bird species. These websites will allow anyone to successfully begin their birdwatching career and continue to learn as they build their birding portfolio.
Throughout the year, there are many birding events that occur within Centre County. In the fall, there are gatherings to watch the Hawks that inhabit Stone Mountain. This is a volunteer run event and open to the general public. There is also marathon bird watching tournaments and meetups that all birdwatchers can partake in when visiting Centre County. The “Christmas Count” is an event run by Audubon with the help of Shaver’s Creek employees and State College Bird Club members that runs from mid-December to early January. During the “Christmas Count” birdwatchers from all over the Centre County region come together to record and tally up the birds that they observe. Each area has count circles so there are no duplicate counts that could skew the bird census data that comes from this event. Another lively occasion for birdwatchers visiting Centre County to sign up for is the beloved “Birding Cup” tournament. The annual “Birding Cup” tournament is a fundraiser in which teams compete to see who can view the most birds within 24 hours. Birdwatchers come to this event prepared to start the festivities, which include good food, wacky facial hair, and a prayer to the “Bird Gods”. The winning team is awarded the highly sought after “Birding Cup” trophy! There are also smaller events that pop up throughout the year depending on what birds decide to use Centre County as a place to rest and recharge during migration periods. Doug recalled that a few years ago the pond across from the Centre County Furnace Mansion became a birding phenomenon as a group of rare ducks traveling south for the winter decided to relax in the pond’s unusually warm waters! Unfortunately, Doug was unable to witness these rare ducks himself, but he hopes they stop by again this winter so he can pay them a visit.
Doug claims that he does not have a “favorite” bird. He went on to explain that his “favorite” is simply whatever bird happened to fly by the most recently and catch his eye. However, he did state that he has quite the soft spot for Cardinals. He feeds Cardinals in his backyard, enjoys household décor with Cardinals on it, and even sent out Cardinal Christmas cards. When questioned about the rarest bird he had ever encountered, Doug stated that “rare” is a relative term for birdwatchers and truly depends on what they have experienced during their time birding. “Rare” birds can be uncommon birds for the area, birds blown off course of migration taking a pitstop they’ve never taken before, or even exotic birds that have escaped containment or been released by careless owners. He did state that he has added some rare” species to his “bird census” throughout the years. This includes the Mourning Warbler, which is named after its dark grey hood that makes it appear as though it is grieving for a recently deceased loved one. Doug has only spotted the Mourning Warbler 3 times in his life, definitely a “rare” experience in my books! Spotting a “rare” bird is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Even the master birdwatcher himself, Doug, stated that a “rare” bird sighting is up to the “Bird Gods” and you never truly know when you are going to spot something incredible, so keep your eyes open!
It is a popular misconception that birdwatching is not a suitable hobby for younger people. Doug laughed as he described an image from his favorite comic strip “Doonesbury” which depicted birders as white, middle aged or older, not socially adept nerds. However, this is not the case, in fact, birding has become quite mainstream and the popularity of the hobby is quickly increasing. Doug mentioned how he recently witnessed that bird watching was being added into some school curriculums and that many teen bird clubs were popping up in the surrounding area. Especially in the current climate with COVID-19, birdwatching is an easy and exciting way to get outside and connect with nature with your friends and family. Birding can be picked up by people of all different shapes and sizes, all you need is a little curiosity and patience.
Birding can be a daunting task; between the thousands of bird species and the variety of locations they can be discovered at. As with any hobby, you can start small and ease into the experience. Doug Wentzel is an excellent example of the benefits that birdwatching can introduce into your life. Instead of rushing through life’s activities day to day, Doug makes it a point to stop and take in the world around him. Birdwatching has allowed him an opportunity to open his heart and mind to everything that the environment we call home has to offer. Your journey with birdwatching can take you to fantastic places and allow you to create fulfilling memories with friends and family. In the words of Doug, “Bird by bird I have come to know the world”.
Written by Sarah Ferriter
Edited by Lexie Hosterman