2020 has been a crazy year thus far. If you have been staying inside and socially distancing as much as I have, you may be experiencing some cabin fever. I recently rediscovered the wonders of birdwatching through my father. Birdwatching is a safe and easy way to get outside and explore plenty of locations in Centre County for those who are ready to leave the house and escape into the outdoors.
My father has always had an interest in animals, but had a special interest in birds. In high school he worked at a teaching zoo raising and rehabilitating birds of prey. To this day, he takes pride in being able to identify birds just by looking at them flying up in the sky. As a child, I grew up spending a lot of time with him watching and learning about
the birds in our area. While I may not be as good at caring for or identifying birds as he is, I still enjoy watching them as they soar above me; this is why I was very excited to have the opportunity to speak with Susan Smith.
Susan is the Vice President of Field Trips for the State College Bird Club (SCBC), an organization dedicated to birdwatching and cataloging information about the bird populations they see in the central Pennsylvania region. According to her, birdwatching, also known as birding, can brighten your day, "Looking at birds makes the world a much more wonderful place. I can do it anywhere and I’ve come to enjoy it very much.” Susan found her interest in birding about five years ago when she attended a guided birdwatching walk at the Millbrook Marsh Nature Center. While on this tour, Susan and the other attendees walked the trails that lead through the wetlands; while they enjoyed the serenity of the marsh they learned about the different species that were stopping by during their migrations. It was on this migration walk where she first learned about the SCBC.
Through her role as Vice President of Field Trips for the SCBC, Susan has the opportunity to lead, organize, and attend trips to various birding locations around the region (despite the restrictions put in place due to COVID-19). Most recently the club went on a trip to Fishermans Paradise in Bellfonte. The group was able to be safely socially distanced on the grass by the fish hatchery while they watched at least 30 prehistoric looking Great Blue Herons come in to roost for the night. On an earlier trip in September, the club had permission from Penn State to take a bird walk near the Ag Progress Days area. “We saw some warblers and a huge number of goldfinches (around 150) as they were on the cherry flowers. That was fantastic to see that many goldfinches all at once," says Susan.
During our phone call, I asked Susan what makes Central Pennsylvania a great place for birding; she told me that it’s all of the green space we have. It’s estimated that out of Centre County’s 709,120 acres of land, about 535,100 acres are forested. Of that forested land, approximately 65,000 acres are protected by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. In these State Game Lands, traffic, damage to wild flora and fauna, riding of animals, removal of materials, and property damage are all regulated, making these places great for watching the birds in their safe and natural habitat. In fact, one of Susan’s favorite bird watching locations happens to be the birding hot spot that is Ten Acre Pond in State Game Lands 176, the Scotia Game Lands.
The Ten Acre Pond is a double whammy of a birding location because not only does it have the green space that birds like, but it also has a body of water which tends to draw in birds of all kinds. Susan explains that the majority of hot spots around the area all have this in common. “Well, they’re all places with water. We aren’t known for having water, but these are the spots where you get the greatest numbers of species of course, so [places like] Bald Eagle and Colyer Lake.” Birds will often stop by these locations during their migrations to bathe and keep their feathers in good condition.
She went on to tell me about the “hidden gem” that is the duck pond near Centre Furnace Mansion. Because this hot spot is so close to Downtown State College, I decided to take a visit. When I got there, I was transported to a whole new world. I would never have guessed that someplace so serene could be tucked so close by. As soon as I got out of my car I could see dozens of Canadian geese and Wood Ducks swimming in the pond. I also happened to meet a birder while I was there who shared that the pond is a birding hot spot year-round since the water is always warm due to the nearby Penn State Treatment Plant. It’s safe to say I’ll be going back to the duck pond in the near future.
Many of these local hot spots can be found at the tip of your finger on a eBird. eBird is a website designed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which provides its users with a database filled with bird observations. People can go on the site and record where they were when they had a bird sighting and what kind and how many birds they saw. This data is then compiled and displayed on a map. The site allows you to stay connected with the birders around you while also staying socially distanced.
Birdwatching truly is a tranquil and mesmerizing activity that allows you to get outside and experience what the world has to offer. After being cooped up for what feels like forever, I’m glad to have rediscovered this activity.
“Birds will give you a window, if you allow them. They will show you secrets from another world– fresh vision that, though it is avian, can accompany you home and alter your life. They will do this for you even if you don't know their names– though such knowing is a thoughtful gesture. They will do this for you if you watch them.” ― Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds
Written by Kelly Cook
Edited by Griffin Relford