There are many birds that should be seen in southcentral Pennsylvania during the winter months. For example, most folks consistently spot house and white-throated sparrows at backyard feeders in January, and even the most routine winter drive reveals a patchwork of resident crows, red-tailed hawks, juncos, and chickadees. Cardinals, titmice, and a host of other hardy northern birds join the menagerie.
But other birds are an unexpected winter staple, and it may be that, because birders do not expect to see and so do not look for them, these birds are scarcely seen while they tough winter out. One such creature, often viewed as a bellwether of spring, is the eastern bluebird.
Nothing inspires optimism like a bluebird. Its bright, vibrant plumage and cheerful chitter are infectious. But those characteristics seem out of place against a dreary winter background. Still, bluebirds are on the edge of their winter range in southcentral Pennsylvania and can in fact be spotted right now. The website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for example, shows a map with summer breeding and year-round ranges for the bluebird meeting almost exactly in the Harrisburg area. Whatbird.com corroborates this even further with a year-round range map that extends as far north in Pennsylvania as the New York border and as far west as Centre County. The author has casually spotted two of these vernal birds this winter, the first of which was spotted in the Carlisle area during December and the second of which, a brilliantly plumed and healthy-looking male, was spotted during January in the Fairfield area of Adams County.
As winter guests, herons are equally unexpected as bluebirds. In his celebrated book Gone for the Day, wildlife artist and nature writer Ned Smith recalls a great blue heron observed in Millersburg along the Susquehanna River in the beginning of December. While Smith admitted it had been a fairly mild winter so far that year, he had “still assumed all herons had migrated to warmer places where fish and other aquatic creatures are abundant and active.” Whatbird.com confirms Mr. Smith’s suspicions with a year-round range map cleverly skirting the entire state of Pennsylvania, except in the area of yawning Lake Erie. But while great blue herons do require open water to feed, other sources prove that they are not an uncommon winter resident of the Greater Harrisburg region, even during an icy winter such as the one currently gripping the area. Cornell’s year-round map covers all of Pennsylvania and stretches all the way through New England. In a sort of tiebreaker, National Geographic’s book Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America shows a year-round range map that extends conveniently to the Harrisburg area but no farther–as if to break no tie at all. Empirical observation might be the soundest indicator in this case. The author has spotted several of these birds in southcentral PA this winter, including a first-year bird that is making its home along the Conodoguinet Creek in Carlisle and can be spotted almost everyday along the same stretch of stream.
Other birds are often mistaken for being patent migrants, including inveterate thermal travelers such as turkey vultures. Both of the previously mentioned websites list this bird as only a summer resident of Pennsylvania. But even a cursory look over the agricultural fields off of Interstate 81 from Harrisburg southward will reveal a maelstrom of these scavengers swirling through the frosty air.
As in most things, there are no absolute answers in birdwatching. This cuts both ways, of course, as many birds that are commonly believed to call Harrisburg home during the winter months still press on to warmer climes. But it also means that many birds that are thought to have left the area during tough temps still reside, albeit in nooks and crannies. It might make fun winter birdwatching to search for these creatures when doldrums kick in. And the further one goes and the closer one looks, the more one’s bound to shatter preconceived notions of hibernal habits.