Waterfowl at Lake Arthur

April is one of my favorite months. In early April, spring is just starting, winter is finally over, and (most importantly) migrants are just starting to come through in force. Then by the end of April, the first wave of migrants is almost through and you are ready for the full force of spring passerine migration.
For the past few days, reports had been coming in over the PABirds listserv of some of early Aprils migrants at Moraine State Park, a state park along Lake Arthur just north of Pittsburgh. Besides migrant passerines, Moraine is a good place for overwintering and migrating waterfowl. So my dad and I decided to get the best of both worlds and well as take advantage of the warmest weather in weeks and go out to do some birding.
We pulled into the park and weren’t even down to the lakeshore yet when we saw our first tree swallows of the day. These magnificent birds are just what make April such a special month. There were also a few bluebirds around the nest boxes presumably checking them out as potential places to raise the next generation. After enjoying watching the tree swallow for a bit, we continued down towards the lake.
The first spot we stopped was one of the three or so boat launches around Lake Arthur. In the water offshore there was a mixed raft of Bufflehead and ruddy duck. There were surprisingly few Bufflehead though (small numbers of waterfowl was a recurring theme throughout the day, presumably because of the high wind along the lake). Continuing on we encountered more Bufflehead rafts, along with a few rafts of Scaup (they were to far away to make a confirmed ID), and a few more ruddies.
We then arrived at another boat launch along the lake shore. It was in a fairly secluded inlet providing for calm waters and shelter for waterfowl. The waterfowl were taking advantage of this as we saw a large raft of common mergansers and a large group of coot. An osprey was soaring overhead and with it were a flock of ring-billed gulls with a single Bonaparte’s gull. Getting out of the car I realized that it was the quintessential early spring day. Chickadees, cardinals, song sparrows, and eastern pheobes were in full song, it was sunny, and you could feel the humidity in the air. It was beautiful to be out.
We then moved on towards the other end of the lake to look for more waterfowl. We pulled into the main parking area for the park and decided to walk one of the trails there in hopes of finding swamp sparrows. Spring peepers were calling loudly from the marshes, red-winged blackbirds were singing, and a pair of horned grebes were swimming in the more open water. The first part of the trail we walked ran along side a marshy area. As we got closer to the marsh, the sound of the spring peepers got louder and louder to the point of almost being deafening. However, over the noise of the harbingers of spring, I could just make out the song of a swamp sparrow. I managed to locate it (singing from atop a cattail) and got great looks at this beautiful sparrow. The trail itself was very scenic. It wounds its way through beautiful deciduous forest interspersed with pine stands. Golden-crowned kinglets could be heard calling amid the pine boughs and song sparrows moved and foraged in the brush. As the trail looped back around and passed the marsh again I heard a female wood duck call but could not locate it.
Returning to the car, we headed out of the park to buy some food at a nearby gas station. After buying enough calories to get us through the test of the day (salt and vinegar chips and a root beer) we headed back into the park. Our next stop was to be the waterfowl observation area. This is a observation deck that looks out onto a sheltered bay with a marshy are around the edges. It usually holds good numbers of dabbling ducks with generally smaller numbers of diving ducks. Today was no exception. As we walked out onto the deck, a flock of ten wood ducks burst up off the water and flew off to areas unknown. Scoping the water revealed around nine hooded mergansers, a small ground of Scaup, a Bufflehead, a pair of ring-necked ducks, some mallards, some Canada geese, and a park of green-winged teal. There were also three Bonaparte’s gulls overhead. Although I would have liked to stay longer, the wind forced us back to the car. The then headed towards what was to be our last stop of the day.
On the way there we stopped at yet another boat launch where we found a pied-billed grebe and a pair of gadwall. Then we continued to the last spot. This last spot was a place that my dad and I discovered when we got lost the first time we came to Moraine. It is a wooded section along the lake where to reach the lake you have to hike through the woods a bit. However, it is well worth it as it has produced some good birds in the past. Today was no exception with a raft of redheads being the highlight.
All in all it was a spectacular trip which really highlighted the best of early April and of Moraine State Park.

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