Look Up in the Sky! It’s a Tern, It’s a Crane, It’s Allegheny College Bird Watchers!

Spurred by the COVID-19 restrictions this semester, every Wednesday evening, the Allegheny College Bird Club has hosted socially distanced “chimney swift watch parties” in the Odd Fellows Building parking lot. The group observed the swarming of hundreds of fine-feathered chimney swifts before they all flew into one of the building’s chimneys at sunset.

The Bird Club was recognized as an official club by the College in November 2019 and held its first meeting in January 2020, so it’s relatively new on the Allegheny scene. The club doesn’t have an official member count, but it currently has more than 100 people on its email list, and it has had 30-plus different individuals show up to its events this semester.

Joshua Heiser, president of the Allegheny Bird Club.
Joshua Heiser, president of the Allegheny Bird Club.

Its mission statement, as listed on the College’s website, is “to provide a vehicle for students to pursue their interests in birds and to engage the wider Allegheny community about avian diversity and welfare.”

“Basically, if it has anything to do with birds, our club does it,” says Bird Club President Josh Heiser, a sophomore from Bethesda, Maryland. “We have weekly meetings where we do things like bird identification workshops, guest speakers and bird-themed trivia games, and every weekend, we lead some bird walks to a local, natural area.”

The club is officially affiliated with the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit organization that works to protect birds and the places they need. As an Audubon campus chapter, the group has access to resources to support the functioning and growth of the club, connections with other Audubon campus chapters around the country, and lots of networking opportunities for the club members. “The National Audubon Society even gives grants for campus chapters to do conservation work, and that’s something we’d love to get involved with in the future,” says Heiser.

Heiser says that with autumn migration in full swing right now, there are all sorts of bird species passing through northwest Pennsylvania. “I’ve personally seen 114 different species locally this month alone, and our trips cumulatively have probably tallied around 70 different species. Some cool birds we’ve been seeing frequently include bay-breasted warblers, Cape May warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, blue-headed vireos, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and red-breasted nuthatches,” he says.

Luis Mendoza joined the Bird Club because he “saw it as a really unique opportunity to make an impact on my college community. We were able to establish ourselves and become an Audubon-recognized chapter within our first year. It sets us up really nicely by allowing us to teach people about what and how to bird and also working with other clubs on campus for conservation projects.” Mendoza, a junior from Waukegan, Illinois, says he enjoys the excursions into Greendale Cemetery and watching the chimney swifts at the Odd Fellows Building. His favorite bird is the kiwi.

Members of the Allegheny College Bird Club explore Greendale Cemetery in early October. Photos by Jacob McGee
Members of the Allegheny College Bird Club explore Greendale Cemetery in early October. Photos by Jacob McGee

There is no “typical” bird-watching trip, Heiser says. “Generally speaking, each trip consists of some sort of trek to and from our destination. Recent spots include the Robertson Recreational Complex, Greendale Cemetery and Woodcock Lake. Then there’s a one-to-two-hour-long walk around the area to see what birds are hopping around. For every trip we do, we create an eBird checklist for all the birds we see. eBird is a really user-friendly platform where birdwatchers can upload their bird sightings to be viewed by other birders and scientific researchers, and every participant on our trips is then emailed the eBird checklist afterward so they can keep track of the birds they saw, as well as perhaps learn a bit more,” he says.

Heiser, who is a double major in biology and environmental science and sustainability, with a minor in Spanish, got interested in bird watching as a youngster. “I think it was the bird books. We had a bunch of field guides lying around our house when I was little, and starting at age 4 or 5, I would spend hours flipping through them, fascinated by all the different sorts of birds I found in their pages,” he recalls. “My mom was into birds and nature as well, and when I was around 9, we started going on weekly bird walks sponsored by the local nature center.”

In high school, he joined the youth division of the Maryland Ornithological Society, a bird club for middle- and high-school students. “We did monthly bird trips throughout Maryland, as well as the World Series of Birding every May in New Jersey. There are some insanely good young birders in that group, and they really pushed me to improve my identification skills and be the best birder I could be,” says Heiser, whose favorite bird is a Blackburnian warbler.

The Bird Club doesn’t have a website yet, but it does have an Instagram @ac_birdclub, and it also recently created a club promotional video, which you can view here.