Birdwatching Basics

Birdwatching Resource List - Cook Forest Conservancy - Birding Essentials

Coronavirus cabin fever?  Lots of house-bound folks are getting into birdwatching lately – a fun & easy outdoor springtime activity, even better when you’ve got a couple of guide books and apps, and a pair of decent binoculars.  While we at the CFC are beginning birders ourselves, here’s a list of resources that we find helpful.   

Birding Apps: 

  • Audubon Bird Guide – amazingly comprehensive.  Download the Eastern data file to access multiple search indexes, high-res images, and bird call audio when you’re offline.  
  • Merlin Bird ID – identify that bird by key, by photo – or BY SOUND!  Just hit a button on your phone to record songs, and this excellent free app analyzes and interprets all the birds who are singing – and links to more info on each  
  • eBird – Cornell Lab’s quick & simple app interface for tracking sightings – use this one for The Great Backyard Bird Count

Birdwatching Books:

Online Birding Resources:

Items that Help Bring the Birds to You:

  • binoculars – probably the only investment a beginning birder should make.  Audubon has a comprehensive guide to binoculars at various price points here, and from this list I bought the Celestron Nature DX 8×42 and have been really pleased with their brightness and clarity.  I also have the 10×42 model of the Nature DX, and it’s great, too – they magnify a bit more, and are a bit harder to target and hold steady.
  • bird feeder, tube style – this model is also available at Tractor Supply and Wal-Mart, has lasted several years, and attracts chickadees, tufted titmice, goldfinches, sparrows, nuthatches, woodpeckers up to red-bellied size, cardinals, and bluejays.  Grackles are almost too large for it, and they dislike a hood (e.g. a 2′ or so diameter circle slid over the hanger) or roof add-on, if you’re having problems with them.
  • bird feeder, double suet cage – a good sturdy design for attracting woodpeckers and nuthatches, and the flat roof doubles as a platform for feeding oranges, etc. 
  • hummingbird feeder – this model is easier to clean than the bottle types.  Hummingbird feeders should be boiled or washed with a weak bleach solution between fillings, so they don’t harbor mold & bacteria.  Here’s the best recipe for hummingbird nectar – only use plain white sugar and water, in a one to four ratio.

To pick up any of the above, and enjoy their excellent backyard bird sanctuary, visit The Birdwatchers Store in Slippery Rock.  Happy birding!

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Lead Poisoning in Birds

Cook Forest Conservancy - Lead Poisoning in Eagles from Ammunition

Bald and golden eagles prefer fish, but are opportunistic foragers that scavenge when practical. In most areas, eagles have access to food sources with expended lead bullets – field-shot pest species, offal piles, non-recovered game, and weakened, contaminated live prey. 

Deer pits across the Game Commission’s State Game Lands provide a regular source of food for scavenging eagles.  Hunting season falls in autumn and winter, when scavenging for food becomes more important – and lead poisoning victim numbers spike.

Between 2006 and 2016, lead poisoning was found in one-third of 228 eagles from across Pennsylvania – 30% had detectable levels of heavy metals in their liver.  While the specimens died variously from trauma by car, train, and gunshot (also electrocution and infection), the examined animals mostly accumulated the lead levels as a result of scavenging.  Lead poisoning destroys the nervous system.  If it doesn’t kill the bird outright, the lead poisoning renders it too weak and disoriented to either hunt for food, or protect itself from predators and threats.

One simple way to reduce lead toxicity in eagles and other wildlife is to use non-lead ammunition.

Both performance and cost of non-lead ammunition is comparable to lead counterparts. The PA Game Commission advocates the use of non-lead ammunition to hunters, and it’s safer for people, too, since the lead can’t fragment or leach into game meat. Please ask your local supplier to stock non-lead ammo 🙂

Centre Wildlife Care - tube-feeding lead poisoned eagle
Centre Wildlife Care volunteers tube-feeding a Bald Eagle suffering from lead poisoning

From Centre Wildlife Care:

Since 2013, when we got our blood lead machine, all of the bald eagles that we have taken in have had some level of lead in their blood. Most have needed chelation therapy to remove the lead from the system, plus antibiotics, tube feeding, and months of rehabilitation before they could be released. Some were too sick to save from the lead toxicity/ trauma and died.

We have also seen lead poisoning in hawks, eagles, vultures, crows, gulls, ducks, geese, swans, loons and grebes.

For more information, and to find non-lead ammo, contact: 

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Betsy the Bat

Betsy is an ambassador for Centre Wildlife Care – she’s non-releasable because she cannot fly, so she educates folks about the wonders and benefits of bats.  Bats, the only mammals capable of continued flight, help us humans by consuming their body weight in insects every night. Unfortunately, the little brown bat, previously Pennsylvania’s most populous, was decimated by white nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease. They’re slowing coming back, but only have one pup per year — so it’s crucial to help every bat you can. Keep neighborhood skies dark, and consider installing a bat house.
Betsy the bat - Centre Wildlife Care

If you find a bat this time of year (late fall to winter), please don’t release them; they will die in this type of weather. They should be hibernating in caves. Those that aren’t in caves hibernating are at risk. Centre Wildlife Care can care for them until spring when it is warm.

If you’re in the State College area, call Centre Wildlife Care at 814-692-0004 – or call Wildlife in Need Emergency Response, which operates a state-wide network of trained wildlife capture and transport volunteers, at 877-239-2097.

Please remember to never touch them with your bare hands; use thick gloves and pick them up gently with a towel. Place the bat in a box with soft cloth or paper towels with a lid, and air holes no bigger than a pencil. Keep them in a warm, quiet, dark room away from pets and people until they can be transported to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation centre.  And, don’t assume that they can’t escape…if you don’t put a lid on the box and weight or tape it down…they will leave. It happens all the time 🙂

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WIN Wildlife Courier Training

CFC WIN Wildlife Courier Training 2019-09-28

Save some Critters!

Learn how you can help injured wildlife – Saturday, 28 September, 2019,  1 – 3 pm at the new Cook Forest State Park office, 100 Route 36, Cooksburg, PA 16217.  Join a retired wild animal rehabilitator for information and instruction on becoming a volunteer wildlife courier – learn about:

  • the mission and goals of WIN Emergency Response of PA, Inc.
  • PA Regulations
  • possible dangers to you and to wildlife
  • safe practices and common sense
  • how to assist a Capture and Transport (C & T) Permittee
  • how to safely transport an animal
  • what equipment you’ll need to help save injured animals

WIN (Wildlife in Need) Emergency Response of PA is fulfilling a desperate need by dispatching a network of trained volunteers to make sure injured animals are delivered to PA-registered wildlife rehabilitators, quickly and safely.  To expand its volunteer base, WIN is partnering with the Cook Forest Conservancy to train transport responders in and around Cook Forest State Park.  Those interested in the next level – wildlife capture – can find out more at this session.

The seminar is $25 per person, and requires pre-registration to ensure we meet the five-person attendance minimum.  Please contact Sue DeArment, WIN Director, by 24 Sept via 814-425-7731 or sdearment @ windstream.net (remove spaces).  Thank you for making Pennsylvania a better place for wildlife!

Download a printable copy of the event PDF here

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Bats & Moths 2019 Recap

Bats & Moths 2019 - Recap

The turnout at Tom’s Run – seventy people and six bats – is a happy increase over last year for both groups, and it’s important to track bat densities to determine whether they’re rebounding following the decimation caused by White Nose Syndrome.  PA Game Commission scientist Amber Nolder said that, “after the devastating losses due to white-nose, there does seem to be some stabilization of affected bat populations. However, it could take over 100 years for complete population recovery (assuming enough bats can continue to survive white-nose and other threats), because of the low reproductive rate of most of these cave hibernating species, which have only one pup per year.

Moths, which, along with butterflies, make up one of the most diverse orders of insects, also are a large proportion of the diet of birds and bats.  Tim Tomon, scientist with the Bureau of Forestry, noted that they can also be useful indicators of plant presence.

You can help bat & moth populations at home:

View the entire photo gallery here – and please join us next year, as we’re planning to make Bats & Moths night an annual event! 

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Bats & Moths of Cook Forest

Bats & Moths of Cook Forest

Please meet at twilight (8:30) at Shelter #2 to help bat biologist Amber Nolder and insect specialist Tim Tomon during an evening survey of bats and moths along the picturesque Tom’s Run valley. Following an educational presentation, we’ll be catching bats and moths in nets for research purposes.

Bring your flashlights – there will be supplies to make a custom, removable red-light filter, so you can see better at night and disturb wildlife less. We’ll also have bat-mask coloring for the kids. 

This event is FREE and open to all – donations will support the CFC and the installation of bat boxes in Cook Forest State Park.

Much thanks to the Pennsylvania Game Commission and DCNR Bureau of Forestry and their scientists, and to the management and rangers of Cook Forest State Park for their accommodation and support!

>> 8:30 – 10:30 pm, Tuesday, 2 July 2019, at Pavilion #2 in beautiful Cook Forest State Park, Pennsylvania.  Approx. GPS coordinates = 41°20’50.0″N  79°13’11.2″W — follow Forest Road to near Breezemont – Shelter #2 is across from the Log Cabin

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Apheloria virginiensis millipede

orange & black milipede

Apheloria virginiensis  – a “large” millipede

This fellow was spotted on Camp Trail, Cook Forest State Park, in May of 2019. He’s a member of the Xystodesmidae, a family of millipedes which was named by O. F. Cook (no relation!) in 1895.

They don’t bite, and they don’t sting.  But, according to Wikipedia, this 2-inch-plus orange & black flat-backed millipede has been “reported to secrete cyanide compounds as a defense” – so don’t touch it!  If you have touched it, make sure to wash your hands, since “the toxic compounds it secretes are poisonous and can cause extreme irritation if rubbed in the eyes.”  

Otherwise, these insects are harmless, and beneficial.  They love damp forest floors strewn with rotting wood and host to mosses and fungi.  The millipedes eat these things, and are an important part of the forest life cycle. 

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Air rescue: Saving Pennsylvania’s northern flying squirrel

By Kathy Hackleman, Senior Editor/Writer, Penn Lines
Reprinted with permission from Penn Lines / Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association

adult flying squirrel in Texas - photo by akire-tanzt

It is almost impossible to distinguish between a northern flying squirrel and a southern flying squirrel without close observation of the hairs on their chest (if the hairs are white from tip to base, it’s a southern flying squirrel; if they are white at the tip, but darker at the base, it’s a northern flying squirrel). While to the average Pennsylvanian, it appears as if one could easily be substituted for the other, they are very different.

The southern flying squirrel, with its disproportionately large eyes, conspicuous skin flaps and a flattened tail to assist in gliding, is prevalent in much of the state. However, these nocturnal creatures go about their lives seldom noticed — unless they inadvertently end up in a chimney with no way out. When they are seen gliding from treetop to treetop to rooftop in the darkness, they are often mistaken for a bat or a bird. Once found only in the southern United States, they have slowly but steadily crept northward until they have taken over much of Pennsylvania.

The northern flying squirrel, on the other hand, is in trouble despite its almost-identical appearance.


“The northern flying squirrel, which is listed as endangered in Pennsylvania, is a part of the state’s historic population of wildlife,” says William M. Williams, information and education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). “It is a native Pennsylvania species that was here prior to the European colonization. Because of human behavior in destroying their habitat, the conifer forest, they have been wiped out in Pennsylvania almost entirely.”

However, there is a group of people determined to halt the decline in the northern flying squirrel numbers and, if possible, increase their population in the state through forest management.

Greg Turner, the PGC state mammologist, is one of those people. He has been studying northern flying squirrels since 1995 when he was a part of a study team at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He and his university colleagues wrote a grant to obtain funding specifically to determine the distribution of the northern flying squirrel in Pennsylvania.

“The northern flying squirrel is very rare and very difficult to find,” Turner reports. “It is a mammal that is very secretive and rare, so they get ignored by a lot of people because it takes a lot of time and work to figure them out, but I like the challenge.”

Fewer than 50 northern flying squirrels have been located in Pennsylvania since 1995.

“That gives you a good idea of how rare they are,” Turner says. “I have personally handled around 30 of those. In an effort to locate where they are, we have placed over 700 nest boxes across the state, and we have also done some live-trapping. Live-trapping is a very labor-intensive process as we bait the traps in the evening and check them at first light daily because our primary goal is not to harm any of the species.”

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Snakes: Not Awful at All

happy snake day 2018Though often feared and vilified, snakes are essential for a balanced ecosystem, and generally are beneficial to have around.  Snakes eat mice and other rodents, keeping their populations in check and limiting the bugs and pathogens these critters can carry — snakes provide chemical-free, hands-off pest control for us.  On the other side of the food chain, birds eat snakes, and snakes eat snakes.

Snakes are threatened by habitat destruction and encroaching development, competition from invasive species, and  – persecution.  So please, put down your shovels, and learn more about the value of these much-maligned reptiles:


Happy World Snake Day 2018!

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Black-capped Chickadee sings Cheese-burger

All spring, three or four of these little black-capped chickadee birds have been frequenting the suet cake feeders and singing in the forest.  They have a number of calls and songs, but their “cheese-burger” song is by far the most charming.  This rendition was recorded near the Clarion River in early April:

To hear the black-capped chickadee sing cheeseburger next spring, head to Tom’s Run Road in Cook Forest State Park in mid-April.  For more information on the birds, and additional sound recordings, visit these pages on Audubon & the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which provides this fact:

Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons…

Want to attract black-capped chickadees?

black-capped chickadee by Alain Yvan Séguin

To bring black-capped chickadees to your own yard, follow a few simple tips that will also help other local wildlife.  If you know the CFC, you know that we love birds, and creating good habitat for all the creatures of western Pennsylvania.  Here’s a quick overview:

  • provide habitat – plant natives, and leave dead trees and bramble patches
  • provide attractive feeding, watering, & nesting sites
  • minimize predators – especially housecats (any cats, whether yours or feral), which injure all sort of critters when let outdoors

For further details on the habits and habitats of black-capped chickadees, and how to attract them to your yard (and improve your little piece of the area’s ecosystem generally), see this post: 

Our thanks to Alain Yvan Séguin, Member of the Wild Birds Unlimited group, for the stunning black-capped chickadee photo, and to onthefeeder.com for reaching out about expanding this article 🙂

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How Birds Live

How Birds Live, Claude R HillHow Birds Live, by Claude R. Hill, 1940 revised printing by American Education Press Inc., is a charming 36-page overview on the workings of the bird world, with pen-and-ink illustrations.

Mr. Hill reprints an interesting technique for sketching birdsong with dashes and curves, the results akin to an avian morse code.  Hill attributes the idea to wildlife artist R. Bruce Horsfall, but, sadly, little can be found online regarding his contributions to song sketching.


How Birds Live - CR Hill How Birds Live - CR Hill

How Birds Live is an endearing and succinct introduction to bird biology and behaviour, and should engage any young naturalist.  Hill illustrates some of the ways birds benefit people, e.g by eating mosquitoes and crop-damaging insects and rodents – one pair of barn owls ate more than 2,000 mice in a summer.  He also explains how birds evolve to suit their métier: by having webbed feet or hunting talons, and downy feathers for warmth and stealth or strong, sleek feathers for flight.

How Birds Live - CR Hill

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It’s Squirrel Appreciation Day!

For those who enjoy celebrating obscure and slightly silly holidays: 21 January is Squirrel Appreciation Day.  Cook Forest has a fair number of squirrels — including chipmunks, which are ground squirrels — but the squirrels of the year at CFC are the southern flying squirrels:

Southern flying squirrel

These fellows are tiny (~ 2 oz), nocturnal (look at those eyes!), and fearless leapers – flying squirrels glide, rather than fly, using the furred membranes between their front and rear legs on each side, called the patagium.  Though they primarily leap among trees in a stand, they’ve been recorded gliding as far as 295 feet, which is nearly 98.5 yards, which is nearly a football field’s length – and they do it at speeds between 10 and 30 mph.

They’re predominately active at night and spend very little time on the ground, so many folks never see these fellows.  Despite a small disparity in size and coloration, it’s quite difficult to tell the southern from the northern flying squirrel, which is endangered in Pennsylvania.  Since the Cook Forest flying squirrels had pups (or “kits”) in the autumn, we know they’re the southern variety, as only the southern squirrel has two small litters annually.  Sugar gliders look similar, but are a different animal altogether.

Flying squirrels are among the only communal squirrels – as many as 30 have been found living in a single drey, since the’re so small they need to nest together to share body heat. Flying squirrels don’t hibernate, but they often become less active during colder weather.

Fun fact: if you find a nest in your attic, you’ve got a “scurry of squirrels!”  Lucky you!


Some of us are in the same boat:

southern flying squirrel under sofa
young flying squirrel investigating movie night

This is not his natural or his normal habitat, but he and his siblings won’t be evicted into custom-built three-tier tree-hung condos until spring.  If you’ve got a similar problem, please contact the CFC and we’ll happily share any advice or information.


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