A few weeks agos, I decided to take part in a Big Day competition being hosted by the Fern Hollow Nature Center. The count area was going to be the area around Sewickley (a suburb of Pittsburgh) and I thought it would be a fun way to enjoy the start of migration. So, on Saturday, me, my dad, and a birding friend of mine (Jack) went out to compete.
The count started at six so we picked Jack up at 5:15 and headed out. We pulled into the parking lot at Sewickley Heights Borough Park and waited for the sun to come up so we could head out. While waiting there, we got the first few species for the day (towhees, chipping sparrow, titmice, white-throated sparrows, etc.). When it got light enough to see, we headed out on a hike into the park.
Things seemed pretty quiet as we first left the parking lot but we were quickly able to find the first warbler of the day, a black-throated green, which was foraging in the top of a tree. Moving on, we were able to get pileated woodpecker as well as seeing a purple martin flying overhead! This is not a bad bird in the county at all and a bird which I didn’t expect to get. Walking farther along we didn’t seemed to be finding much more. That all changed however, when we ran into a mixed species flock announced as always by the calls of chickadees and titmice. I quickly spotted a bird which looked to me like a nuthatch. However, when I got my binoculars on it, I could see that it was in fact a black-and-white warbler (my FOY). Soon after that, we heard a hooded warbler sing and it soon hopped into view giving amazing looks. It wasn’t long after that either when we had a blue-headed vireo as well. Singing ruby-crowned kinglets, and good views of a cooper’s hawk were the highlights of the rest of the walk but I was anxious to get going and try to find some more birds.
We arrived back at the car and pulled out to drive the roads which run through the park. We heard a wood thrush singing before pulling onto the main road but we didn’t really have all that many birds until we pulled over to confirm a singing northern parula at a location known as Sneed’s. We had just gotten looks at the parula when Jack spotted a blackburnian warbler nearby. It took me a while to get on the bird but it was well worth it when I did. In addition to these two, we also were able to pick up yellow-throated vireo and yellow-throated warbler here. Continuing on down the road, we stopped at a bridge which crosses the Little Sewickley Creek. Here we were able to get Louisiana waterthrush as well as finding a blue-gray gnatcatcher nest. The early morning hours were running out now and it was beginning to be time to head down to the Ohio River but we decided to quickly stop at Walker Park. This turned out to be a great decision as we were able to find a great horned owl which took off as we approached. We also found a hairy woodpecker.
After that quick stop, we headed down to the river, but first, we stopped quickly at a nearby Giant Eagle for some food and house sparrows. After that, we headed to the Leetsdale Industrial Park which is a location of the only osprey nest in Allegheny County. We pulled into the park and were not able to immediately find the birds. We did get house finches and a yellow warbler Jack found however. We then decided to go a bit closer to the nest and see if we could see it better from there. When we were almost directly underneath the nest (it’s on a high-tension tower) Jack and I could see the tail of the bird just sticking out. However, my dad had gone to bring the car closer and as such was not seeing the bird and we were not able to count it. We waited anxiously for him to arrive hoping the tail would still be there. By the time he got there however, it was gone.
We desperately tried to view the nest from different other angles but were unable to so we decided to cut our losses and keep going. In the end things worked out though because as we were about to pull out of the park, we decided to scope the nest one last time from a distance. This time we encountered success and we were able to see the bird’s head sticking out over the top.
Around this time, I received an RBA text saying there was a yellow-crowned night-heron on a lake at North Park which was just north of where we were. While it wouldn’t count for the day, it would be a great county life bird for me so we decided to chase it quickly.
When we got to North Park, we found a large group of birders there who had been there for a while looking but hadn’t found it. Because we didn’t want to be away from Sewickley for too long, we got assurances from the people there that they would post it to the RBA if it was refound and we headed back south. Before we left however, we did get my first of year house wren.
Returning to Sewickley, we stopped at a few spots along the river where we were able to pick up northern rough-winged, tree, and barn swallow as well as a few herring gulls. After this we headed back to Sewickley Heights Borough park where we hoped to get a few more species.
The main thing we wanted was a northern waterthrush which had been found earlier that day in a marshy area of the park. We arrived there and were unable to find the bird. We were able however, to find a solitary sandpiper along the shore of the marsh.
Since bird activity was pretty low in the park, we decided to go into Sewickley itself and try to find rock pigeon, a species which somehow we had not encountered that day. This would be harder than we expected. Sewickley isn’t the most urban place in the world and as such, rock pigeons are actually hard to find. After driving through just about all of Sewickley however, Jack spotted a single rock pigeon flying over the road.
We then returned to the park hoping that there would be more birds around now. The first spot we wanted to try was the waterthrush spot again. We had much more success this time as we did find the waterthrush as well as a kingfisher, and a pair of wood ducks. We then parked to do one last walk on the trails before it got too dark.
While there weren’t all that many birds around, we were able to find two great crested flycatchers (a pretty early record) as well as a Carolina wren (another species which had somehow avoided us). Jack and my dad were also able to hear a barred owl calling though I never was able to hear that.
This put us at 69 species as the day wound to a close.
With daylight fading, we decided to head to the Fern Hollow Nature Center which was the designated finish point to hand in our totals and see how we had done.
We ended up doing very well as our total of 69 was the highest youth count and the highest overall count!
All in all, it was a great day of birding and an event which I am very much looking forward to competing in again next year.