BY LEAH ZERBE
As the pandemic set in, more and more people turned away from their phones and TV screens, setting their sights on newly hung bird feeders and long walks in the woods.
In terms of happiness research, this natural pull toward nature during tough times makes perfect sense. Mounting evidence suggests that green spaces, being outdoors and watching birds (whether or not you know how to ID them) provide measurable increases in well-being. One recent study found that a 10% increase in bird species in your vicinity boosts life satisfaction on par with getting a pay raise or bonus at work.
Birds pay us back in so many ways, and for lots of us, they’ve been a saving grace during a period of unprecedented isolation and political, economic and health uncertainty.
If you’re new to birdwatching in the area, you couldn’t have started at a more exciting time. Bird researchers dubbed 2020 a “superflight” year, with huge numbers of boreal finch species in Canada heading south in search of winter food.
This resulted in species such as evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, white-winged and red crossbills, and common redpolls flooding to Pennsylvania to fill their hungry bellies.
“It has been very exciting for local birders here and across the state to see these larger finches — the evening grosbeaks,” said birder Dave Kruel of Pottsville, a member of the Schuylkill County Conservancy’s Education Committee.
In fact, according to official North Lookout bird count numbers, Hawk Mountain recorded the highest number of evening grosbeaks in more than 20 years.
The southern movement likely is the combination of two things: Successful spring breeding thanks to a surge in spruce budworms that serve as food for the young, and crop failures in conifer and other boreal trees that supply winter food for these birds (something that appears to happen in cycles).
This sends birds heading south — way south in some cases — in search of food.
Pennsylvania Master Naturalist Barb Ritzheimer of Pine Grove still sees a few pine siskins hanging out at her feeder, while Hegins resident Shirley Shrio Geist was lucky enough to catch some beautiful photos of evening grosbeaks this winter.
If you weren’t privy to the winter irruption (birds flooding southward in search of food), keep an eye out. Kruel said the area could see another wave of evening grosbeaks pass through in coming weeks as the birds return to their Canadian breeding grounds from more southern points.
Want to create an inviting pitstop for them? Try putting sunflower seed out in tray-style feeders, as opposed to tube feeders, Kruel said.
For more information, check out the Finch Research Network at finchnetwork.org.
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