Chances are, you already know a birdwatcher. Birding is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in America. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 51.3 million Americans watch birds, and more are taking it up all the time.
Kenneth Yonek, a retired chemist from Washington County, enjoys birding by a lake near his home and along the Greene River Trail beside the Monongahela River.
“I started watching birds about 20 years ago, after hanging a few bird-feeders outside my window,” he recalls. “That got me interested, then I started watching for birds when out walking my dog, so it all started casually. Then I got my first Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds and started listening for calls I had never heard before. I’d look for the bird I heard singing and, after I found it, look it up in the guide.”
Yonek had his first real “wow” moment as a recreational birder when he saw an osprey pair along Peter’s Lake’s shoreline in 2016.
“The male was clearly putting on a show, flying down to the water five or six times,” he recalls. “It was really something to watch.”
Over 800 different species of birds live in North America. Nearly half of those species can be seen right here in Pennsylvania, many year round. From hawks to hummingbirds, warblers to waterfowl, you can find and observe the state’s bird population everywhere — on city streets, in suburban backyards, along trails and scenic drives, or in state forests and parks.
One great place to start is on western Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams. Lisa Scherer, who chronicles the wildlife along Ten Mile Creek near Marianna, PA, with her camera, often comes across new varieties of birds along the riverbank.
“Birds need water all year and we are blessed with a great variety of water fowl here,” she says. “Near water, you are likely to spy herons, egrets, and various ducks, which are also easier for kids to see, keeping them interested. While fewer birds are around in summer than in spring, birding season on the rivers really takes off in September when the first migrant water fowl arrive, like Pied-billed Grebes and Ruddy Ducks.”
Three Rivers Birding Club of Southwestern Pennsylvania lists a number of areas that it recommends, including Washington County’s Elizabeth Waterfront Park and Monongahela’s Aquatorium, where there a number of ducks and an easily walkable shoreline, making it a good spot to go with children. Marjorie Howard of Greene County’s Ralph K. Bell Bird Club recommends the Greene County Trail which can be accessed either from the town of Rices Landing or the trailhead at the Greene Cove Yacht Club.
Fish, fowl and other wildlife have all rebounded along with the Mon’s water quality, and there have been sightings of birds long absent from this erstwhile industrial area. That includes the bald eagle: In December 2017, the Mon River Town Program launched a Bald Eagle Photo Contest, offering gift cards to local eateries for the best photos.
“The bald eagles have been sighted but we have not yet found the nest,” says Yonek. “The tree canopy has kept it hidden. We will be looking for it as the leaves die back in fall, and then maybe we can install a nest-cam.”
While fewer birds are around in summer than in spring, birding season on the rivers really takes off in September when the first migrant water fowl arrive.Lisa Scherer, birder and photographer
Early fall is a great time to visit western Pennsylvania not only for the birds, but to take in the vibrant foliage. What could be more engaging than standing on a shoreline or floating in a kayak, looking at the changing leaves reflected on the water while searching for a kingfisher or red-eyed vireo? Not much.
There are a couple of local outfitters along the Mon if you choose to search out your birds by boat, such as Mon River Recreation located in Point Marion. If you want to combine other outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, or sightseeing with your birding trip, lots of suggestions can be found at monrivertowns.org.
Of course being outside is half the goal. Birding brings lots of benefits beyond adding species to your Life List. You make a connection with nature, which helps reduce stress. The sport encourages you to walk and be active. Introducing children or grandchildren to birding can foster a lifelong interest in nature. (Start off by reminding kids that birds may be hard to spot at first, but easy to hear. Have them close their eyes and listen, they will follow the sound and find the bird.) It’s also a great way to make new friends – there are birding clubs in just about every community.
Wherever you live in Pennsylvania, there are likely at least 100 species that can be spotted in your area. Compared to many other outdoor sports, the cost of entry is low. All you need is a hat for shade, a field guide, and binoculars, and you’re ready to go.
There are a lot of great resources for birding. In addition to the local advice from Three Rivers Birding Club of Southwestern Pennsylvania or Ralph K. Bell Bird Club, there are websites such as Bird Watching Daily, the National Audubon Society’s Birding page, and birdwatching.com, a good place for beginners.
WENDY DUCHENE is an attorney with offices in Allegheny and Somerset Counties. She is also an avid user of the many hiking and biking trails in western PA, where she can often be found on her recumbent bike or walking her dog Sander.
All Photos by Lisa Scherer, taken along Ten Mile Creek.
This story was created in partnership with the Mon River Towns Program | www.monrivertowns.com