JoEllen Wright of Greencastle, a wildlife and bird photography enthusiast, made a pit stop at Wildwood Park in late March while picking up her “grand-dog” from her daughter Ashley Fletcher, who lives in Mechanicsburg.
Story and Photo by Deborah Lynch
This article is not for the birds – but for those interested in spotting birds. Anyone can be a birder. All it requires is to be aware of one’s surroundings — which includes urban areas — and to pay attention to sights and sounds. Novices might be surprised at what they can see in the Harrisburg region, which is directly in the path of one of the largest migratory flight patterns in the country. That means that along with backyard chickadees and robins, residents might see hawks, snow geese, egrets, loons, gulls, and so many other species of birds.
“The best thing that a beginning birder can do is put themselves in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing,” said renowned ornithologist and author Scott Weidensaul. “Birders love showing birds to others. They can share them with everybody and there’s still enough to go around.”
Pamela Fisher, an administrator for the Birding Pennsylvania Facebook group recommends morning for bird watching, but adds it might depend on what someone is hoping to see. She said birding doesn’t have to be a solitary sport, but being quiet helps the chances of seeing things. In fact, she said that small groups can enhance the experience – others can help point out sightings.
Birders from the Facebook group as well as other local enthusiasts gush about the myriad of locations in the Harrisburg area for prime bird viewing. Many people have heard of or gone to see the hawks at Hawk Mountain, which is part of the Kittatinny Ridge, better known locally as Blue Mountain in the Appalachian Mountain chain in Kempton, PA, near Reading and Allentown. The world’s first refuge for birds of prey, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a non-profit with a goal of conserving raptors not only in the immediate area, but also across the country and world. It has more than 60,000 visitors a year.
Closer to home, birders have great opportunity as well. Wildwood Park sits at the northern edge of Harrisburg, where it offers trails, boardwalks, marshes, and a nature center. At Ft. Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, birders flock to H.M. Levitz Memorial Park lake and trails. In the middle of the Susquehanna River just below Columbia and Wrightsville, birders can find many species of migratory shorebirds at the Conejohela Flats, a combination of small brush-covered islands and mud flats produced when Safe Harbor Dam lowers the Lake Clarke area of the Susquehanna for electricity generation.
Harrisburg birding enthusiast Carol Tooker says Harrisburg is a great area for bird watching: “I call it the Hotel Hilton for birds,” she said, noting in particular the thrill of having peregrine falcons nest on the 15th floor of the Rachel Carson building in downtown Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection provides cameras and updates on the falcons (dep.state.pa.us).
“The other thing, of course, are the yellow-crowned night-herons – they walk along 2nd Street. I’ve seen them at Hamilton a lot. They’re big, and kind of fascinating,” Tooker said. She also suggests the Green Belt, Fort Hunter park, and walks around City Island to spot birds. She says that anyone who stays aware can spy birds almost anywhere – she saw wild turkeys at her doctor’s office in Camp Hill. “Keep your eyes open. It’s fun.”
Sally Zaino, president of the Manada Conservancy, adds a few more Harrisburg spots prime for bird watching: Detweiler Park in Middle Paxton Township, heron rookery along the Swatara Creek in Hershey, the old state hospital grounds across from the Farm Show off Cameron Street, and all along the Swatara Creek by kayak or canoe.
Self-taught bird photo enthusiast Ken Boyer notes his great fortune in living near Lewisberry on a smaller private lake on the migratory path. He’s got the perfect backyard perch, but he also frequently takes day trips to other great locations including Kiwanis Lake in York; Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the border of Lebanon and Lancaster counties; the Conowingo Dam on the lower end of the Susquehanna River in Maryland; Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and Silver Lake Wildlife Refuge all in Delaware; and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Assateague National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. New Jersey also has several wildlife refuges a day trip away. All are great spots to see waterfowl and raptors along with other birds and wildlife.
The 6,000-acre Middle Creek spread, which is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, is known far and wide as being the stopover for more than 250,000+ migrating snow geese as well as tundra swans, and thousands of other ducks and water birds. This migration usually passes through in late winter or early spring. “It’s a madhouse both from the avian perspective and the human perspective,” said Weidensaul of the migration of both birds and people to the site.
The Conowingo Dam attracts huge numbers of bald eagles between November and February, according to Weidensaul. It is also a great spot to see gulls and wading birds like great blue herons and black-crowned night-herons from November to late February and early March. “The eagles number in the hundreds, and there’s always a lot of social interaction, especially attempts to steal fish from one another,” he said.
The reason the Harrisburg region ranks so high for birders is its geography. “There are two really major migratory corridors that converge right at Harrisburg,” Weidensaul said. “The Susquehanna River basin is a major migratory route for waterfowl and waterbirds [loons, grebes, gulls, cormorants, and more] and the Kittatinny Ridge [migrating raptors] is part of the system.”
Weidensaul grew up near Hawk Mountain and ran a bird banding program there for some time. He recommends other great spots closer to Harrisburg to also see hawks – Second Mountain Hawk Watch near Ft. Indiantown Gap, where a small group monitors the birds daily, and Waggoner’s Gap near Carlisle, where hawk counts are managed by the Audubon Pennsylvania.
It’s no surprise that Weidensaul, who is one of the founders of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art just north of Harrisburg in Millersburg, recommends the 12 miles of trails on 500 acres there for birding. The center’s popular spring bird walks are over for this season, but it offers different nature events throughout the year including summer camps for kids. For more information, see the website at https://nedsmithcenter.org.
Two more great spots for birding near Harrisburg, according to Weidensaul, are Stony Creek Valley (accessible at Dauphin) and Clarks Creek Valley (north of Peters Mountain entrance to Stony Creek Valley). Much of this land is either state game lands or Harrisburg Water Authority land that is open to the public. Many people might be familiar with the old railroad bed that’s now a hiking and biking trail that runs through the more than 44,000 acres of Stony Creek Valley.
Even closer to home, Weidensaul said the boat launch area around West Fairview on the Susquehanna is a great spot to see different species of migrating birds between February and April. Another Susquehanna River island, Wade Island near the Route 81 bridge, is one of the largest nesting areas for great egrets and black-crowned night-herons. They can be seen from Wildwood Park. He also notes a great mix of habitats at Swatara State Park between Jonestown and Pine Grove.
Whether in search of birds just for enjoyment or hoping to catch them on film, birders can develop their own methods and instincts over time. Some birders still use guides (Weidensaul recommends the Sibley Guide to Birds, Eastern volume, or the Kaufman Guide in which birds are arranged by color and shape), but others use phone apps if they want to identify species.
Boyer says he has learned how to photograph birds and nature by trial and error citing the time a fox came out of the brush and started walking down the road towards him. He said he didn’t have anything to steady his camera and had no idea what to do with the speed of his camera, so he just started shooting, rolling the camera speed with his finger. “I got home and the photos were gorgeous. It taught me something about camera speed. It taught me how to stop action. Things like that happen in the field where you just experiment with some things. When they work, you just don’t forget about it.”
Some of Boyer’s instinct comes from more than luck. As a longtime hunter, he said those skills translated well. “When I picked up the camera in 2005, I put the guns down for hunting, but I use the hunting skills all the time in photography in sneaking up on game and birds. That has been a great aid to me.”
Weidensaul, who now lives in New Hampshire thanks to his wife’s job with Massachusetts Audubon, has written 30 books on the natural world including a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and just had a new book come out. A World on the Wing, which debuted April 18 at No. 10 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction, looks at the challenges humans have placed on bird migration around the globe as well as the science and psychology of bird flight. He was chased by bird poachers and faced other dangers around the world in researching the book.
Weidensaul’s research helps to show the wisdom of a common adage of conservationists for those exploring nature: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.