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Annual count, volunteers on the decline this year

This is one group that went out Jan. 2 in the annual Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's South Butler Christmas Bird Count. They are, Judy Lesso, front, and, counterclockwise, Jana Oster, Terrie Sacket, Julie Jansen and Sally Johnson.

The warm weather last weekend was great for the birds, but not so great for bird-counting.

The numbers are in for Jan. 2's annual Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's South Butler Christmas Bird Count, and the number of people doing the counting was down too.

“We had about 50 people in the field and about half the people (around 22) at the feeder counts,” said Chris Kubiak, director of education for the society and compiler of the bird count statistics.

He blamed himself for not getting the word out about the event for the decline in feeder counters.

The bird count is conducted within a 15-mile circular area centered around Mars and running west to Zelienople, south to Cranberry Township, east to the Route 228 corridor and north to Connoquenessing Township. This year the count ran for 24 hours starting at 6 a.m. Jan. 2.He said the number of species, 57, and number of individual birds, 5,664 compared with last year's tally of 56 species and 9,605 birds.“The lack of birds at the feeders and in the fields were not just in Butler County, but across the northeast,” said Kubiak.“That doesn't mean they weren't there,” he added, noting the comparatively warm weather meant the birds were not hurting for food and therefore not interested in coming to bird feeders.“Birds weren't seen in the fields because they had no need to travel around and look for food sources as you have on those really cold days,” he said.The day of the count started at 41 degrees and dropped to 32 degrees as the day wore on and rain changed to snow showers.

The warm weather was also blamed for the low number of birds counted between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Jennings Environmental Education Center, 2951 Prospect Road, in Brady Township during its bird count for the Bartramian Audubon Society.“Three of us counted 37 birds from 12 species,” said Brandi Miller-Parrish, an environmental education specialist at Jennings.“We didn't see any unusual birds, and we didn't have very high counts this year,” she said. “They were common feeder birds and not a tremendous number of them.”

The warm December and early January weather could be taken as a sign of climate change, Kubiak said, as did the number of southern bird species included in the count, including mallards, mergansers and bald eagles who are staying in Butler County because area lakes and streams are not icing up.Other birds that in the past would have been wintering farther south but that were seen in the bird count this year included purple finches, northern crown kinglets and northern flickers.But one bird's gain in habitat is another bird's loss.The changing climate has had a bad effect on Pennsylvania's state bird, the ruffled grouse.

The climate change is destroying the grouses' food supply and habitat and interfering with their ability to reproduce, Kubiak said. Grouse populations have shown an 80% decline.But the latest bird count didn't signal only bad news.The count turned up great numbers of raptors — red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks and American kestrels — in the county.“Common ravens are starting to show up. We had two in the count. That means they are returning to their old region,” said Kubiak. Raven populations had been decimated by loss of their forest habitat and unregulated hunting.“They were viewed most likely as agricultural pests and confused with crows. People took potshots at them,” said Kubiak.The annual bird counts are important to help assess the state of the environment.Kubiak noted bird counts in the 1950s and 1960s showed the rapid decline of the bald eagle population which attracted the attention of avid birder, as well as biologist, author and conservationist Rachel Carson, which led to the discovery of the pesticide DDT as a major reason for the eagles' decline.“For years it was rare to see a bald eagle in Butler County. Now we have a pair nesting on Connoquenessing Creek which also indicates the creek is healthy enough to support fish,” he said.In fact, the bird count can act as the “canary in the coal mine,” warning of an overlooked ecological danger.“There's a really strong warming trend, and birds are shifting their ranges way faster than anyone thought,” said Kubiak.

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