Great Expectations: Birding In Pittsburgh's Parks

January 15, 2015 by A Parks Pal

This guest blog was shared courtesy of Ted Floyd, Editor of Birding Magazine. This article previously appeared at The ABA Blog, published by the American Birding Association. An expanded version can be found here.

Boys playing ice hockey in Frick Park. Photo from City of Pittsburgh City Parks Department.

Christmas day, my family and I flew to my natal town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We deplaned and were greeted at the gate by a Santa Claus impersonator. Then we got on the bus to my boyhood home, where my parents still live. The bus took us past the same rivers, bridges, and buildings from my childhood. At my parents’ house, the gas fireplace, piano, and piles of books were as they always had been.

On occasions such as this, one might be pardoned the sin of nostalgia.

Our second day back, I did the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (CBC). I had done my first CBC, in Pittsburgh, in 1982, when I was 14. My current assignment was Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, the same as in my teen years.

I got to the park early for owling. There I met up with Frank Izaguirre, and he and I proceeded through the old woods to a stretch of trail called the horseshoe. The horseshoe was good in the old days for Eastern Screech-Owls. So it was this morning. A bonus was two Great Horned Owls sitting silently on the bough of a gnarled locust. Come to think of it, my first CBC at Frick Park, 30+ years ago, was highlighted by a bonus Great Horned Owl.

We pressed on into the heart of Frick Park. It was quite dark this cloudy morning, but that didn’t matter. Years ago, the lay of the land was imprinted in my brain forever. After all these years, I can still find my way around the park by topographic triangulation: the grade of the trail, the squishiness of the ground, the way sounds carry in the steep hollows.

Frozen Frick Park. Photo credit: Melissa McMasters.

Frank and I played a little guessing game: What would be the first bird of the daylight hours?Several screech-owls later, we had our answer. It was a good one, a Winter Wren, giving its shrill chimp-chimp call. On that first CBC at Frick Park, my party found a Winter Wren, one of the best birds of the long day.

It was 1982 all over again. On this trip down Memory Lane, I was half-expecting to bump into a 14-year-old version of myself birding along the trail.

Not so fast.

Our next bird was an American Crow. Then another. Then dozens. Then nearly a thousand, streaming east from a roost near the city center. Another party, assigned to count crows at the roost, tallied an astonishing 19,000+ birds. That would have been unimaginable in the early 1980s, at which time crows were beginning to colonize the city.

The late Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes, Curator of Birds at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, considered the urbanization of the American Crow to be the most remarkable ornithological phenomenon he had ever witnessed. I wonder what he would think now. And it’s not just crows.

One of the CBC parties in the city proper reported a Common Raven, another a Fish Crow. Ravens occurred nowhere near Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, and Fish Crows were unrecorded in the region at the time. Today a three-Corvus day within the city limits is unremarkable.

Pileated woodpecker, Frick Park. Photo credit: Melissa McMasters.

The crows completed their passage over Frick Park, and Frank and I got our first woodpecker of the day: a Pileated. A Pileated! In the early 1980s, I listened enthralled as the old-timers told me the tale of the one, wild Pileated Woodpecker that once wandered into the park. It might as well have been a wolf or an alligator, that’s how rare Pileateds were at the time. Today they breed in the park. We saw two females—perhaps nest mates hatched this past summer—jerking their way up the trunk of an old sycamore.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers were within earshot practically all day long. Frank and I tallied 19, and I bet we undercounted. The Red-bellied Woodpecker population explosion in the Pittsburgh region still amazes me. That was a good bird, a hotline bird, when I was a kid. It was a bird to brag about at the CBC compilation.

So was the Northern Mockingbird. Frank and I found a couple, and parties elsewhere in and around the park found many more. They found a flock of Wild Turkeys, too, and a couple of Merlins. Wild Turkeys and Merlins, like crows in the late 20th century, are in the process of being urbanized. In the old days, only the northern suburbs ever reported turkeys. And nobody ever got a Merlin. Bald Eagles have become routine in winter in recent years on the CBC, and so have Turkey Vultures. Cooper’s and Red-shouldered hawks are more numerous than they used to be, too, especially in the urban districts.

Every chickadee Frank and I detected was a Carolina Chickadee. When I was a kid, only Black-capped Chickadees were reported on the CBC. That’s mainly because there were a lot of the latter species. It’s also because we simply assumed they were all the latter. Birders are funny that way. Birders get notions, and notions get in the way of reality. Well, Pittsburgh birders finally got it all straightened out, and now it’s all Carolina Chickadees in and around Frick Park. For more than 30 years, we now know, Carolina Chickadees have been pushing into the Pittsburgh region, and Black-capped Chickadees have been withdrawing.

We wrapped up our day atop a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River valley, and I pondered an illusion. It was tempting to say nothing had changed. The river was still there, and the hills. The parkway, too, and the same bridge and tunnel. They’ve been there for as long as I’ve been alive, and they’ll long outlive me. There’s nothing new under the sun, says the old proverb.

At the end of a long day of birding, the author ponders Pittsburgh’s changeless landscape. Photo credit: Frank Izaguirre.

But the birds say otherwise: the crows and ravens, the vultures and eagles, the Coops and shoulders, the Carolina Chickadees and Wild Turkeys, the Merlins and mockingbirds, the Red-bellied and Pileated woodpeckers, and more. Birding has its traditions, for sure, and birders are probably as prone to nostalgia as anyone else. But if you stick at it with birding long enough, you’re confronted with an inescapable reality: πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει. “Everything changes, nothing stays the same.” So said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and so it is today.

I'm at a curious juncture at this point in my birding life. I’ve been birding now for more than a third of a century, and, statistically speaking, I’ve got about another third of a century ahead of me. I won’t rattle off a list of names, but I know that a bunch of you reading this are in the same demographic boat as I.

If you’re like me, you reflect from time to time on how much things have changed in the past few decades. I’ve told the story of the Pittsburgh CBC, but it’s the same in Chicago and Denver, Los Angeles and New York, London and Amsterdam, and practically everywhere else on Earth. Here’s my challenge to you: What will things be like in late 2040s? Assuming the Singularity hasn’t happened, many of us will still be around then.

What are we to expect?

I don’t know. In the early 1980s, we in Pittsburgh weren’t expecting population increases across so broad a taxonomic swath. Think about it again. All these birds have enjoyed population increaseson the Pittsburgh CBC: Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, American Crow, Fish Crow, Common Raven, Carolina Chickadee, and Northern Mockingbird. And I haven’t mentioned a slew of others: Canada Goose, Double-crested Cormorant, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Barred Owl, Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, and more.

Frick Park Song Sparrow. Photo credit: Melissa McMasters.

As I said, I don’t know what the future holds in store. But if things continue as they have—and why wouldn’t they?—maybe Rufous Hummingbirds will become as routine as Fish Crows. Throngs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls perhaps? Will Eurasian Collared-Doves finally establish? Why not Black Vultures and Sandhill Cranes? Or how about stuff nobody’s even thinking of, I dunno, African Collared-Doves, House Crows, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows?

It sounds far-fetched. But so did Peregrines and Merlins, Fish Crows and ravens, cormorants and Herring Gulls, and many others, not all that long ago. Heck, I’m just barely old enough to remember when folks were still remarking on the spread of the House Finch.

I ask the question again: What are we to expect?

Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. Read more articles by Ted here.

Frick Park, Wildlife