For all of its rich and well-known offerings to anglers and hunters, one of northwestern Pennsylvania’s other marvelous outdoors opportunities often is overlooked: Birdwatching.
Presque Isle State Park is an Audubon Important Bird Area where more than 320 bird species have been sighted. Spring migration is a wonder at the park, the final spit of land that colorful songbirds see before they head over Lake Erie and onto their summer grounds.
Erie Bluffs State Park, Erie National Wildlife Refuge, Pymatuning State Park, Allegheny National Forest, Oil Creek State Park, Cook Forest State Park and myriad other public places, let alone back yards, provide even more windows to the avian world.
And where there are birds, there are birders.
Many birdwatchers, experienced and novice alike, find their way to the Presque Isle Audubon Society. From time to time, NWPA Outdoors will profile a birder you might have seen out and about, neck craned to his or her binoculars, spotting scope or camera. You’ll learn a bit more about the birders, and hopefully a lot about the birds and ecology of the Erie region.
First up: Shawn Collins of Meadville, one of the region’s most prolific birders and bird photographers.
Name: Shawn Collins
Family: I have a huge family, spread around the country.
Lives in: Meadville, Crawford County.
Profession: I work at Highmark in Erie and I DJ weekends.
Originally from: I grew up in Pittsburgh.
I got into birding: When I was young, around 8 or 9 years old, I begged my mother to put up some bird feeders in our yard. This started it and I had my lifelong hobby start. After becoming familiar with the common suburban yard birds, I started venturing to the area parks and trying to ID the birds. I had many bird books/guides growing up, so I was quite familiar with what I saw and what I wanted and needed to see.
Spark bird: Yellow Warbler. These guys are so common, but people seem to not notice them. When I was in my early teens I saw my first warbler, this Yellow Warbler. Being young and inexperienced, I had only thought; I would have to go high in the forests or mountains to see warblers, and not see one in my local park. This made me start my checklist and start my quest to see all the birds that can be found around my area.
Favorite birds: My favorite birds are shorebirds and gulls. I know people always look at me funny when I am scanning Presque Isle with my spotting scope going through gulls. People approach me all the time as ask me if I am looking for eagles. I always tell them “No, looking at gulls.” The looks people give me are hilarious because no one expects someone to look at gulls. Gulls are amazing, how they feed, congregate, and basically survive. Gulls are also tricky to ID, most around here are the Ring-Billed Gulls and Herring Gulls. Around Erie we also have a great number of Greater Black Backed Gulls (the largest gull in the world), Bonaparte’s Gulls and we host a number of rarities for our area such as Little Gull, Iceland Gull, Lesser Black Backed Gull and Thayer’s Gull. You can leave Presque Isle with eight different gull species at times.
Shorebirds are another favorite. These guys breed in the High Arctic and then travel so far, and pass through our area. We can have around Presque Isle and Crawford county over 18 different species during spring and fall migration. My favorite shorebird is the American Avocet, which I found at Tamarack Lake this past fall, and a few fellow birding friends found at Presque Isle as well this past fall.
Nemesis birds: My photography nemesis bird is our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse. I’ve seen them, but never long enough to photograph. The bird that eluded me most is a bird that is in Florida, the White Crowned Pigeon. I drove to the Florida Keys and was at all the common spots for this Caribbean bird, and every time I would show up to a place to find him, I always missed him, sometimes by minutes. So this is my excuse next year when I travel to Florida again … I must see this bird!
Favorite places to bird in northwestern Pennsylvania: We have a great area, and is a prime birding area. Presque Isle in Erie County is No. 1. The habitat is perfect for migrating birds, whether it’s shorebirds, waterfowl, or songbirds. Migrating Warblers, the songbirds all birders want to find, love PISP. It’s the first area of land birds see when they are coming from the north over the lakes, and it’s the last piece of land they have to refuel on the way north. It’s perfect! Other areas in northwestern Pennsylvania is the many areas around Pymatuning Lake: The spillway, the nature center and Fish Hatchery, plus the many areas around Route 285 and the causeway. Erie National Wildlife Refuge in Crawford County is great, as well as Conneaut Marsh – Geneva Marsh. There is one road, called McMichael Road, which runs through Conneaut Marsh in Crawford County. This road hosts many great birds; in spring you can find many warblers, rails, bitterns and such.
Strangest place I’ve gone birding: There never is a strange time or place to go birding. You can find a bird anywhere
Usual birding partners: I have a lot of great birding friends. We all are part of the PA Birds Listserve and subscribe to bird text alerts. We send info on our bird sightings to the e-mail list or text alert, so we all can get to see the rarities, and see what you may need to get as a life bird.
Birding gear and equipment I take everywhere: My binoculars, of course, and my spotting scope and tripod. I also have a Canon T3i camera with a 400mm lens I shoot bird photography with. If you walk on Gull Point at PISP, then muck boots!
What I like most about birding: Everything! The thrill of seeing your first warbler of the year, the excitement you get when you see a rare bird that shouldn’t be in our area. Why do people like football or other sport? It’s just in my nature.
The best birdwatching day I’ve ever had: I had too many. I had over 100 species a few days, this was in Florida and other time in Southern Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. Around here in our area, I would think the best days are spring migration at PISP. You can gather up the species on a nice early May morning.
The worst birding day I’ve ever had: Oh, I drove across the state for a bird, and the bird left the day prior. But It wasn’t a waste, I mean I got to see other birds but not my target.
Dream birding destinations: Australia and New Zealand.
Best birding advice you ever got: It’s from a birder named Bob Van Newkirk from Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Birding Club. In the fall, listen for chickadees and titmice. Because following them will be the migrating warblers you seek. This has turned out to be true almost every time.
Your advice to beginning birders: Get a good set of binoculars, a guide and just go outside. If there are any local organizations like Audubon or a bird group, find them and go to a meeting and go on some outings. I find that you get a lot of birding skills from others. Other birders always try and help new birders, and you learn so much information you can’t read in a guide. Knowing habitat and food sources is key as well.
Should a sighting be counted if you’ve only heard an identifiable bird call but not seen the bird itself? I will give you MY rule on this. If I know the bird’s call, and am 100 percent sure, then I count it. But I would have had to have seen the bird to count it on my “life list” If I heard a bird I never saw, then, no, I would not count it. But if it’s a bird I know the call, as in a blue jay or cardinal, yes, count it.
Do you approve of the idea of competitions such as a Big Year or Big Day? Sure, and I did one last year, only for Crawford County. In Crawford County last year I saw 246 different species of birds. I believe that is the top record in one year for that county. In the state of Pennsylvania last year I was third according to eBird at 295 species seen in 2012.
See Shawn Collins’ birding photos at www.flickr.com/pghdjshawn
If you’re a birder and would like to participate in Birder Bios, send an e-mail to email@example.com.