Prove your humanity

There’s been bird banding on Presque Isle State Park since 1960. Over that time, it’s estimated that close to 100,000 birds have been caught, tagged and tracked during migration. After a lull of a couple of years, Audubon Pennsylvania picked the program back up in 2007 at the request of the park. But after Audubon Pennsylvania closed their Northwest Pennsylvania regional office last year, Mary Birdsong, a shorebird monitor, and Sarah Sargent, an avian ecologist, decided that along with their colleague Laura-Marie Koitsch, they’d try to find a way to continue the programs.

Kara Holsopple took a trip to Presque Isle recently to learn more about the new Erie Bird Observatory from two of its founders.

Listen to the interview:

Kara Holsopple: So tell me a little bit about how you decided to form the Erie Bird Observatory.

Sarah Sargent: It was partially inspired by wanting to continue the existing program, but also seeing the opportunity to build more community involvement with birds here and more focus on this region. This is actually a premier birding location in North America, and it’s under-appreciated. We get international birders here, but not everybody knows about it.

KH: Why do you think Erie is underappreciated?

Mary Birdsong: The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has done a beautiful job running [Presque Isle State Park], but they have so many different constituents to speak to, whether it’s recreation or boating or fishing. Birding has been a little bit under the radar. I think that now the Erie Bird Observatory has the opportunity to be place-based outreach and education.

Mary Birdsong (L) and Sarah Sargent (R), along with their colleague, Laura-Marie Koitsch, created the Erie Bird Observatory. Photo: Kara Holsopple

SS: I’d like to build up a young ornithologist program for students to do different ornithological field techniques, potentially having them go into science and become ornithologists, which may sound like it’s a really obscure thing, but birds are very conspicuous. Birds are relatively easy to study. It is one of the bigger areas for employment in ecology and natural resource management. People who have bird skills can get jobs.

KH: Mary, you’ve been at shorebird monitor here for a number of years. Last year was a particularly exciting season; there were nesting piping plovers here on Presque Isle. Talk a little bit about that, and how it fits into the new organization.

MB: 2017 was a very exciting year. Previously, I had only reported the presence of piping plovers, and last year I got to actually watch over the first successful nest in more than 50 years. We had a second nest that was unfortunately washed out, but the eggs were saved and transferred to Michigan to a captive rearing facility where they’re prepared to care for eggs.

The Erie Bird Observatory is hoping to oversee the continued monitoring, hopefully, getting more nesting piping plovers. We would like to see common terns nesting here as well. They’ve tried a few times to create a colony. We’ve never had a successful fledge, but we’re hoping to look for ways to improve the situation for them so that they can also nest here again like they used to.

Presque Isle Male Plover. Photo: Cathy Haffner / PGC

KH: Talk a little bit about the diversity of species and habitats that people can see.

MB: More than 330 species of birds have been recorded here at Presque Isle State Park. Needless to say my favorite are the shorebirds. On any regular beach, people might be able to see spotted sandpipers because they do nest along some of the beaches here at Presque Isle, and they’re fun to watch. They have brown backs and spotted chests and they run around within the waves.

SS: This is where we get the sand dunes. As Presque Isle formed over the millennia, these enclosed ponds happened and then they slowly fill in with marshy vegetation. And so there’s a lot — I think there’s something like 3500 acres in the park here, and there’s something like 2000 acres of wetlands. 

These emergent marshes are a fairly rare type of habitat in Pennsylvania, because we are a very heavily forested state. So these are places that have very specialized birds that use only those habitats for breeding. Presque Isle actually now has probably the biggest population of least bitterns in Pennsylvania, which is this miniature heron, basically.

Populations of least bitterns, a very rare species of bird in Pennsylvania, are on the rise at Presque Isle. Photo: Paul Hurtado / flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

When the park first started doing a lot of invasive plant control, they were targeting the phragmites, a common reed — this very tall thing with plume top. So in 2012, they really started trying to control it because it had taken over the marshes, and they’ve been very successful.

We actually did marsh bird monitoring in 2011 prior to the beginning of that effort. And then again last year we did another survey. We were able to compare the two, and there are a lot more marsh birds now, which is exciting to know that the restoration efforts are really working. In particular, the least bittern, a very rare species throughout Pennsylvania, is about three times as many now as there were back in 2011.

“There’s so much meaning that can come to people from studying birds. It’s really a natural first step into learning and appreciating more about the natural world, and also human influences on birds.”

KH: What are some other things that people might see?

SS: Spring migration is one of the best times to get up here. Really the month of May is best because all of these very brightly colored, small songbirds are migrating through. These are the long and short distance migrants that are going up to Canada into the spruce forests to breed.

One of the things we do during our bird banding is we show people what these birds look like up close and personal, and people love it. We can get 25 species of warblers. The yellow warblers here are just gorgeous little birds. So you can definitely see those in any kind of shrubby area around water.

KH: This is a lot of work — organizing a nonprofit status; getting a board together; volunteers; the actual work doing the banding and the monitoring. Why is this something that you wanted to take on?

MB: Many years ago, I met Jean Stull, who was one of the banders at the park. She became a bird mentor to me. I was already interested in birds, but she really got me sucked in, in the very best possible way. After she died, I was missing her a lot.  I wrote in my journal that I would do what I could to continue her legacy. I consider this a continuation.

SS: It is a personal statement of values and passion for me. I feel like this is something that just enriches the world so much.  I see young people, in particular, who are out of touch with nature, casting around, trying to find meaning in their lives. There’s so much meaning that can come to people from studying birds.

To me, it’s really a natural first step into learning and appreciating more about the natural world, and also particularly about human influences, and what we can do to help make things better, instead of always creating problems in the natural world.

KH: Where would you like to see The Erie Bird Observatory in five years?

MB: A full-time staff, a place where we can greet birders that are coming to visit, and being able to engage in daily outreach to people, not just specific programs.

SS: All of what Mary said, plus being seen as a leader in the region, in terms of being a group that is consulted, and whose expertise is trusted. And that we get turned to by any group that’s going to mess up habitat for birds [laughs] or wants to do better management to support bird populations. I really want us to be seen as experts in this field.