Annual Christmas Bird Count set for Dec. 31 at Bushy Run Battlefield

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Dec. 28—When members of the Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club conduct the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, many of them will have their eyes peeled for a specific avian arrival.

That’s because a Northern shrike, affectionately known by nature lovers as “the butcher bird,” has been sighted in Mt. Pleasant’s Mammoth Park.

It is only the second time that club member Mark McConaughy of Plum has seen one — the last time was more than two decades ago, in 1999, also at Mammoth Park.

“The Northern shrike summers in the boreal areas of Canada and Alaska,” McConaughy said. “It migrates south in the winter, and Pennsylvania is the southern end of that migration. It’s a rare bird for here.”

It also has a unique method for subduing and saving its prey, which includes rodents and other small birds: After catching a meal, the Northern shrike usually impales it on the sharp spine of a hawthorn bush or a piece of barbed-wire fencing.

“Shrikes are rare among songbirds for their lifestyle of hunting and eating animals,” according to AllAboutBirds.org. “They often kill more prey than they need at one time, but they don’t let it go to waste.”

Northern shrikes also have a toothlike spike on each side of their upper bills, with a corresponding notch on each side of their lower mandible. Known as a “tomial tooth,” it allows the shrike to kill prey with a quick “bite” to the neck.

McConaughy and others will be keeping a sharp eye out for not just Northern shrikes but any and all birds in the area Saturday, when the club takes part in the annual Christmas Bird Count, set for New Year’s Eve day at Bushy Run Battlefield in Penn Township.

“There’s a circular area centered on the battlefield which is divided up into sectors,” said Alex Busato of Scottdale, the club’s chair. “You have 24 hours to catalog all the birds you see and hear. At the end, we send all our data to (club member) Steve Manns and he compiles it.”

Bird-watchers have a list of more than 140 species of birds to look for, compiling data that helps the Audubon Society form a clearer picture of migratory patterns across the U.S.

Busato, 23, got into bird-watching when he took a class on it at college.

“I really fell in love with it, and then I ended up picking up nature photography as well, a few years ago,” he said.

This will be the first year Busato takes part in the Bushy Run count, which kicks off at midnight Saturday and runs until 11:55 p.m. New Year’s Eve. Those interested can email Manns at psuloon@yahoo.com to reserve a spot or join an existing group.

“I’ve participated in a few other ones,” he said. “In Rector, their count the past few years has seen declines in some species that used to be common and upticks in species that typically migrate out.”

Last year, he said, the count at the Powdermill Nature Reserve in Cook Township included a handful of gray catbirds.

“They’re usually out of here by early October,” Busato said. “So we’re seeing some effects from climate change.”

The annual Christmas Bird Count is set for Saturday at Bushy Run Battlefield, 1253 Bushy Run Road in Penn Township. For more, email psuloon@yahoo.com.

An additional count is set to take place from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday in Ohiopyle. For more on that event, email jusko88@yahoo.com.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick by email at pvarine@triblive.com or via Twitter .