Year at the Lake

By Michael Lanzone

Red-necked Grebe, April 15- Michael Lanzone

Red-necked Grebe, April 15- Michael Lanzone

I started off 2012 with a New Year’s resolution. Not the typical one most people set for themselves, But for me I guess it was normal. I wanted to get more serious about setting up a local birding patch and visiting it as much as I could. My goal was quite simple: designate a local patch and set up a route through it that I could bird each morning before work. And so it started… a simple goal that turned into an obsession; a whirlwind that ranks as one of the best years of birding I have ever had.

Ice out! Bald Eagle catching Gizzard Shad

I hadn’t lived in Somerset County, PA long. For the previous seven years I was one county to the west, and my travels into Somerset County had been limited to some breeding bird atlas work. We moved to Somerset a few years ago to a spot not too far from Somerset Lake, which allowed me to bird it frequently. The lake is located just to the northeast of the Borough of Somerset. It’s 250 acres and has been designated an Important Bird Area (IBA). There are some fairly diverse habitats around the lake, including a small stream, wetlands, fields, scrub/shrub, and spruce/pine areas, and I thought it would be the perfect spot to set up my patch. In addition to the diverse habitat, it was very close to both my home and my work—something I viewed as crucial.patch2

I decided on a route approximately 3 miles long starting at the dam on the south side of the lake and running around the west side of the lake up to the northeast corner. I established several key stops that I always made an effort to check on every visit, even if the birding was slow. My plan was to run the route after I dropped my daughter off at the bus each day, and to bird it whenever I could at other times. The close proximity to work and my home allowed me to make it to work on time after birding for at least an hour, which was perfect!

MJL- Somerset Lake

Mike Birding Somerset Lake- Trish Miller

As one might expect, the year started slowly. Somerset County—the highest elevation county in Pennsylvania—usually stays fairly cold until mid-spring. The list I compiled on my route through the month of February had just the typical winter birds of Pennsylvania. Things didn’t get exciting until March when small patches of open water started to appear in the lake ice. For a small lake, I had been blown away by the extent of the water bird fallouts I had seen there the year before, and was excited to see what would show up when the ice melted. I didn’t have to wait long for my first good bird, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and in the week after that, one of the largest fallouts I had seen on the lake occurred: at least 12,000 waterfowl and an American White Pelican! Another huge fallout occurred at the end of the month, with approximately 8000 waterfowl on the lake!

Somerset Lake fallots typically occur on nights in spring and fall with heavy rain over the night that extends until morning -Michael Lanzone

Somerset Lake fallots typically occur on nights in spring and fall with heavy rain over the night that extends until morning -Michael Lanzone

As April rolled in, the state began to lower the lake level because of a leak found in the dam. I was a bit angry to hear this, but this twist of fate would end up allowing me add many birds to my list that are infrequent or rare in the county. Mudflats were soon exposed around the lake mostly on the north end, which brought a good mix of shorebirds. The biggest surprise came on April 16. It was a slow day with a bright blue sky. I almost skipped my last stop on the route, but I forged ahead only to find a Ruff!

Ruff, April 16 Photo by Michael Lanzone

Ruff, April 16- Michael Lanzone

That day was pivotal. Jeff Payne, a local birder who showed up to try to help relocate the Ruff, asked me how many county birds I had so far. I had to stop to think for a minute. “Well, I guess over 140 now.” (In fact the Ruff actually made county bird 144 at that point.) Jeff’s response was quick: “Wow… you have a good shot of breaking the county record. It’s 222.” Until that moment I hadn’t thought of attempting a big year in the county, but at that instant something switched in my head, and I suddenly became driven to find every last bird in the county.

Whimbrel, September 14 - Michael Lanzone

Whimbrel, September 14 – Michael Lanzone

This was a different kind of thinking for me. I am not really a hard core lister or chaser. In the past a lot of my birding closely followed my research. As a biologist I place a high value on collecting data for scientific purposes, and I did a lot of birding in conjunction with my research. I would also much rather spend the limited free time I have birding instead of driving. I would much rather find something great at a local spot than run around the state. This aversion to driving is probably also partially due to the fact that I had done so much traveling across the country when I was younger. However, for the first time, doing a big year was desirable to me, because both of my philosophical reasons against big years were accounted for. My route would be contributing to scientific knowledge by my repeating the same route over and over, and I would not have to drive all over the place to do it! My Somerset Lake route had top priority over going elsewhere. This might have seemed like a bad strategy to many, but in hindsight this turned out to be the key to my successful big year.

Black-bellied Plovers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Forster’s Tern, October 2- Michael Lanzone

I would regularly do my full route in the morning. Being close to work, I was sometimes able to run over to the lake during lunch or other breaks, which I tried to do when the weather was right. In the end this strategy came through big time. I turned down many opportunities to go elsewhere to bird and stayed in my county, often finding great birds that I would not have seen if I had been away. Great birds abounded throughout my big year, including many first county records, state rarities, and days of plain old great birding. Yes indeed, great birding in an inland county—11 species of gulls and terns, 35 species of waterfowl, 27 species of shorebirds, and 33 species of warblers.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper September 5- Michael Lanzone

Buff-breasted Sandpiper September 5- Michael Lanzone

Of course I enjoyed all the birds I saw, but a few of my favorites included Golden Eagle, Ruff, Little Gull, Whimbrel, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow Rail, American Avocet, Ross’s Goose, Rufous Hummingbird, Pomarine and Parasitic Jaeger, and Brant. In the end, I broke my personal record, not just once, but three times! The last new bird I added to my list came on December 28 while running my normal route at Somerset Lake: a Glaucous Gull, a first county record and number 264 for the year. The lake route certainly did not disappoint.

Little Gull, 2nd winter, November 15- Michael Lanzone

Little Gull, 2nd winter, November 15- Michael Lanzone

So why did this strategy pay off? For starters Somerset Lake is a great birding location. It sits at high elevation and is naturally a great stopover site for many waterbirds. The lake also sits in a bowl of sorts and is surrounded by higher elevation on all sides, with the highest barriers on the east and west at the Allegheny Front and Laurel Mountain. Bad weather often traps birds in the county with fog and cloudbanks in all directions, and many of these birds eventually end up at the lake. It also could have just been an exceptional year.

Parasitic Jaeger, December 16- Michael Lanzone

Parasitic Jaeger, December 16- Michael Lanzone

Somerset County was for the first time ever neck-and-neck with the “birdiest”counties in the state. Both those reasons likely played a part, but overall I think the key to the strategy was consistency—birding the same route day after day. I setup the route with some key considerations, and I stuck to it. To some it may seem boring to bird the same route every day, but it was anything but boring. I found it very exciting, wondering what great bird I would see next. In addition, because I got to know where to expect almost every bird on my route, when something different showed up, it was quite easy to spot. In fact of my 264 species I saw for the year, I found 241 in the patch at the Somerset Lake IBA!

So if you are looking for a change of pace, try setting up a local patch and birding it as often as possible. Not only will you save a ton of money on gas, you will be surprised at what you find. I must warn you though, it is addicting!

Glaucous Gull, December 28. Last county bird #264 - Michael Lanzone

Glaucous Gull, December 28. Last county bird #264 – Michael Lanzone