An animated pair of blue jays and a demure couple of mourning doves caught my attention immediately upon pulling into a parking spot near the end of the James Mayer Riverwalk, just outside of Johnstown. As the jays flitted between tree branches, the doves calmly bobbed over the top of the small levy toward the Stonycreek River just beyond.
This was a glorious early May afternoon. The sun-bleached blue sky was bordered by a crown-line of emerging, pale-green foliage. A good-sized hawk glided above the tree line, accenting the scene perfectly.
As my feet softly crunched along the dry, crushed-limestone surface of the Mayer Trail, a chorus of birdsong surrounded me. Spring soaked my soul.
Suddenly, a flash of vivid red and a whir of white-against-black wings caught my attention. Accommodat-ingly enough, the bird perched on a nearby branch, posing long enough for me to get a good look through the binoculars.
So distinctive were its markings — an almost scarlet breast patch, white wing stripes, all-black head and a short, stubby seed-cracking beak - that it didn’t take long for even this rookie birder to make a positive identification in a field guide: a male rose-breasted grosbeak.
My guide described the grosbeak as ‘‘a woodland bird, more often heard than seen.’’ I felt a bit privileged.
Such are the quiet joys of birding. And this definitely is the right time of year to try it — especially if you’ve never done much birding before. Not only are birds involved in a variety of breeding behaviors right now, but if you report what you see you’ll be contributing to a significant scientific project.
This is the final year for the Second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas — a comprehensive effort to identify and count the birds that do their mating and rearing of young here. Started in 2004, the effort has enlisted almost 3,000 volunteers statewide so far.
The basic goal is to replicate the first state atlas that took place between 1984 and 1988, then compare results to determine what has been happening to the state’s bird populations over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, Bob Mulvihill, the project coordinator based at Powdermill Nature Reserve near Ligonier, is more concerned with getting new people involved.
‘‘That’s a big push,’’ Bob told me. ‘‘This is the last year to participate in an important project.’’
Everything you need to know about how to become involved can be found at www.carnegiemnh.org/atlas. Or you can get help — and even report a few sightings — by calling (888) PABIRD1.
Whether you spend many hours or just a few minutes doing this, whether you report rare birds or those as commonplace as robins and crows, you will be making a valuable contribution to our state’s knowledge about its bird populations.
However, in the process you also may discover a new pastime, for ‘‘atlassing’’ is a great introduction to birding, and birding can be a wonderful activity for people of all ages and physical conditions. Even bed-bound people can participate if they can watch a birdfeeder through a window.
Give our birds a bit of your time, and they’ll return the favor in soul-satisfying ways.
Dave Hurst loves to hear from readers. You can write in care of the Altoona Mirror or through www.hurstmediaworks.com.