Bird Watching in Pennsylvania

The Hooded Warbler turns its yellow face, framed in black, toward me. I’ve been photographing birds for years, but have never captured one of these beautiful, but skittish, singers on camera — until now.

My husband and I have driven the backroads of the Laurel Highlands to Powdermill Nature Reserve to visit one of the oldest bird banding stations in the country. With its forests, ponds, wetlands, and thickets, the Rector facility, field station of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is a popular stopover for migrating birds. Researchers here fit birds with aluminum bands to study details about migration, longevity, mortality and population growth.

Today, we’re in for a steamy spring outing, but the banding will end by midday to protect the birds from the heat. Net checkers make their rounds about every 30 minutes, carefully guarding the bird’s plumage in the process.

“Many of the 2,000 people who observe the banding each year are repeat visitors,” says Bob Mulvihill, Field Ornithology Projects Coordinator. “I would certainly return often to see birds that we don’t have at home.” Mulvihill holds up a Hooded Warbler for me and I am in awe. What bird lover would pass up a chance to see a Pileated Woodpecker, Sharp-shinned Hawk, or a Green Heron up close?

I slosh through the mud to take in the tranquility of Crisp Pond. Quietude has set in following an earlier thunderstorm. A snapping turtle suns itself on a tiny island and a Green Heron lands in a tall tree. The pond is surrounded by virtually invisible nylon mist nets which, up close, resemble volleyball nets. Strung along habitat edges and cleared of vegetation, the nets are two and a half meters high when fully opened and 12 meters long. I return to the banding lab when Molly, the “Bander-in-Charge” for the day and a volunteer, bring in the first birds. The birds arrive in paper bags shut with colored clothespins — indicating their size and species — and are placed on a shelf.

I was just an avid birdwatcher before today, unaware of the measures taken to collect such avian research. Powdermill’s bird-banding database, begun in 1961, contains more than a half million records of nearly 200 avian species.

A Traill’s Flycatcher is the first “catch” of the day. Oblivious to its important role in science, the bird squeaks pathetically when handled. The “Bander-in-Charge” bands the bird and checks its plumage, age, and sex before blowing on its breast to look for fat underneath its skin. After she measures the flycatcher’s folded wing, the bird goes headfirst into the scale’s plastic cone to get weighed and is released through a flight window. The whole process takes less than a minute. By the time all 11 birds are banded, the two banders set out to check the nets again.

When the temperature approaches sauna quality, the net checkers make their last round of the day. Unaccompanied visitors are not allowed to approach the nets during operating hours, but I have permission to tag along and watch as they furl and secure the nets within minutes, depositing the last bird, a Song Sparrow, into a bag.

Powdermill is more than a bird banding station; we have also come here today to observe the center’s annual BioForay, a four-day-long event that gives nature enthusiasts a glimpse into the daily life of a scientist. Whether they’re searching for woodpecker nests or butterflies, the enthusiasm of these naturalists is contagious. We follow a group with Dr. Brady Porter, who studies the aquatic insects and fish of the upper section of Powdermill Run. He straps on his backpack electrofisher contraption that looks like it’s straight from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He completes the look with a wilderness outfit and boots.

We’re still wondering what the purpose of an electrofisher is while we clamber over fallen trees and cross the creek on rocks. At the survey point, Dr. Porter stirs up the water and briefly stuns the fish as his “assistants” hold the net to collect the samples. Soon, mottled sculpin, brook, rainbow, and brown trout are swimming in the buckets he brought.

We leave the group because we want to see Powdermill’s newly expanded nature center. A classroom for all ages, the entire building is an exhibit of green design — from its straw bale insulation to the rug created of recycled truck tires and the deck made of recycled plastic. In the Marsh Machine we take in the fragrant aroma of three varieties of Canna lilies taller than I am: papyrus, elephant ears, and curly juncus. I buy these for friends at the florist, but here in this wastewater treatment greenhouse, where water passes through a series of tanks and two marshes into a holding tank for reuse, the subtropical plants bloom vividly.

A portion of the recycled water even feeds a nearby living stream exhibit, stocked with trout — a species that require high-quality water to survive. This machine of magical proportions is the future of green living. I agree with Kermit — it’s not easy being green — but as we wind our way home through the woodsy Laurel Highlands, I have a deeper understanding for the need to preserve our planet and conserve its resources.

Learn more about bird watching in Pennsylvania >>

Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau,
120 E. Main St., Ligonier,; 724.238.5661

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