Game Commission, volunteers search for rare marsh birds

By Brendan Gibbons

(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens’ Voice

The state Game Commission is recruiting amateur birders to help in the search for secretive marsh birds, some of the rarest birds in the state. They’re looking for water-loving species such as the American bittern, American coot, black rail, common moorhen, king rail, least bittern, pied-billed grebe, sora and Virginia rail.

Of these, the American bittern, king rail and least bittern are listed as endangered in Pennsylvania. The birds depend on wetlands, a habitat type continually under threat from agriculture, development and water degradation.

Over the past two centuries, more than 50 percent of the state’s wetlands have disappeared, according to the Game Commission.

The survey is Pennsylvania’s share of the North American Marsh Bird Monitoring Program, based at the University of Arizona. A Web page hosted at the university includes recordings of the birds’ vocalizations.

Almost every bird makes a variety of calls, many that sound like they couldn’t possibly come from the same bird.

The common gallinule, for example, has three recordings on the University of Arizona Web page. The “wipeout” call sounds like the unhinged laughter at the beginning of 1963 Surfaris song of the same name. It also makes a call that sounds like “keep” and another that sounds like “giddy-up.”

Observers should listen to the recordings to familiarize themselves with the calls, Game Commission endangered bird biologist Patti Barber said.

Even experienced birders would count themselves lucky to catch a glimpse. Though the birds are extremely rare, their secretive nature keeps them from being easily counted, which possibly skews the commission’s population data, Barber said.

While previous surveying efforts have focused on larger wetlands, this survey includes small wetlands, 3 to 10 hectares in area, Barber said. That’s roughly the size of 1 1/2 to five football fields.

“There are more of these birds around than we realize,” Barber said. “By visiting these smaller wetlands, we hope to get a better understanding of where they are in the state.”

Game Commission staff and volunteers have reported their results in 13 counties so far, including Bradford, Susquehanna, Wyoming and Luzerne, Barber said.

Biologist Bruce McNaught, a Montrose resident, has conducted a few surveys in Susquehanna and Bradford counties this year. He found none of the species on the list, though he did spot a northern harrier at one wetland he visited. The species is listed as threatened in Pennsylvania.

“They’re so secretive,” he said of the marsh birds on the list. “You’re basically listening for the calls. You’re basically playing tapes and hoping they’ll respond.”

He pointed to the state’s second Breeding Bird Atlas to show the species’ known and suspected ranges throughout Pennsylvania. Compared to ubiquitous birds such as the American robin, whose range blankets the state, secretive marsh birds only show up as specks here and there.

“It’s very sparse,” he said. “Any one of us (observers) finding one is going to be a thrill.”

Surveys began May 15. So far, the survey has 23 registered observers across the state, Barber said.

Volunteers have until Monday, June 30, to complete the surveys. Those interested should start by contacting the coordinator, Alison Fetterman, at Once registered, observers can choose which wetlands they plan to survey.

For the first time, they also can enter their data on a smartphone, Barber said.