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    Citizen Science and the Ornithological Record

    A review by Drew Weber

    Birds of Central Pennsylvania, by Nick Bolgiano and Greg Grove

    Stone Mountain Publishing, 2010

    262 pages, $20.00—softcover

    ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13347

    When I moved to State College in the summer of 2010 for graduate school, I was excited about birding central Pennsylvania, which has extensive forest and many more breeding warblers than the farmland I had been birding. My timing was good, as I was able to pick up what was then the brand-new Birds of Central Pennsylvania to speed the introduction to my new home.

    Birds of Central Pennsylvania covers six counties: Clinton, Centre, Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, and Juniata. Geologically, most of this region is in the Ridge and Valley Province of the Appalachians. The ridgelines are primarily forested and rich in such typical forest birds as tanagers, grosbeaks, orioles—and 26 breeding warblers. In the northwestern portion of the region, on the Allegheny Plateau, reclaimed strip mines host regionally rare Henslow’s Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers.

    Screen Shot 2013-08-21 at 10.04.36 AMSouthern species such as Yellow-throated and Kentucky Warblers overlap here with Canada Warblers, Northern Goshawks, and other birds of the northern forests. The region’s avian diversity is furthered by the rolling topography with elevations from 400 to 2,950 feet above sea level: Deciduous river valleys with their breeding Yellow-throated Vireos are within easy reach of the Yellow-rumped Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets nesting in higher, coniferous forests.

    Much of central Pennsylvania is decidedly rural,but there is an active birding community of long standing, and the region has a rich history of ornithological study. This book introduces the personalities, bird clubs, and research projects that have contributed to our current state of knowledge in the area.

    While some research originates in the nearby university community, much of what we know about the area’s birdlife is owed to citizen science. Indeed, much of the data for this book comes from the Breeding Bird Survey (18 active routes in the region), Christmas Bird Counts (seven in the region), two statewide breeding bird atlases, and a statewide Breeding Bird Census, which encourages repeated effort to document breeding activity in smaller tracts, many of them in Important Birding Areas. Citizen science projects in the region have been directly responsible for documenting the large number of Golden Eagles migrating through the area, and for discovering that Northern Saw-whet Owls are regular year-round residents on the Allegheny Plateau. The authors themselves have put in a lot of the legwork surveying the areas they write about.

    Birds of Central Pennsylvania is an easy read, but not because the content is at all “dumbed down.” The natural history descriptions here are detailed enough to be useful but are never boring; the summaries of various studies are well written and accompanied by extensive tables, but not to the point that the book feels like a journal article. The authors strike an excellent balance: The information given will inspire readers to go out and bird the areas they have just read about, but the book also points out that there are plenty of discoveries yet to be made in this sparsely settled area.

    When I first opened this book, I was disappointed that there weren’t more explicit directions to find birds, on the model of such volumes as William J. Boyle, Jr.’s Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey. But as both the Foreword and the Introduction make clear, bird finding is actually only a secondary goal of Birds of Central Pennsylvania. While half of the book is dedicated to site descriptions, those chapters instead emphasize learning to identify the microhabitats used by the species found at each locality: Refreshingly, rather than simply naming the intersection where Cerulean Warblers are found or which path is hopping with Canada Warblers, the book teaches its readers how to look for those and the many other uncommon birds of central Pennsylvania.

    The areas covered here range from small northern bogs to entire valleys. Each site description ends with suggestions for trails to walk or general locations to focus on; especially where trails are mentioned, the simple maps would have benefited from more detail.

    Prominent in each of the site descriptions is a summary of the studies conducted there over the years, starting with Spencer Fullerton Baird’s first trek through the region in 1842. The entries go on to list the birds expected in different seasons, though the text focuses heavily on each site’s breeding avifauna.

    There are also chapters on hawk watching, including a discussion of the impressive spring migration of Golden Eagles; since regular counts began in 2001, an average of 172 birds a season have been tallied moving north across the area.

    BINbuttonThe remainder of the book is devoted to accounts for each of the 337 species recorded in the six-county region, a much-needed resource replacing Merrill Wood’s Birds of Central Pennsylvania, first published in 1958 and last updated thirty years ago. These accounts offer the same type of detailed occurrence data as Boyle’s Birds of New Jersey. For regularly occurring species, commentary is provided on regional population trends, seasonal abundance, and any unseasonable records. For rarer species, all records are listed and any observable trends are noted. Perhaps the most interesting sighting in the book is that of a Northern Fulmar observed at Beaver Stadium during a rainy Penn State football game.

    The seasonal bar charts are accurate and precise, to judge by my two years of birding in the region.

    The fact that the site accounts here give more space to the area’s natural history than to how precisely to bird it may have been a source of momentary disappointment. But I quickly realized that that information was much more valuable to me than a simple bird-finding guide could be, and it has significantly helped me build an understanding of the local bird life. In the age of readily available distribution and abundance data from eBird, Birds of Central Pennsylvania serves as excellent commentary and a source of local expertise to fill in the gaps on a much finer scale. The book teaches you the habitats to look for and encourages you to get out and have an experience rather than just “getting the bird.”

    Check this book out if you are planning on visiting central Pennsylvania, or are simply interested in natural history and the ways that citizen science can contribute to ornithology—here or in any region.

    Drew Weber

    - Drew Weber is a Pennsylvania native now living in New York. He writes at NemesisBird.com serves as chairman of Pennsylvania’s records committee and as an eBird reviewer. His particular interests as a birder include migration and the intersection of birding and technology. 

    Recommended citation:

    Weber, D. 2013. Citizen Science and the Ornithological Record [a review of Birds of Central Pennsylvania, by Nick Bolgiano and Greg Grove]. Birding 46.2: 75.

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