There are more than 300 species of birds living in Indiana, Cambria and Armstrong counties, and members of the local Todd Bird Club are dedicated to seeing as many of them and learning as much about them as they possibly can.
The club was formed in 1982 and was named after W. E. Clyde Todd, a western Pennsylvania ornithologist. Margaret and Roger Higbee of Indiana joined the group in 1983 and participate in its bird-watching - or birding - outings at least once a week. Both Higbees advocate birding with a group rather than alone.
"It's nice to hear about what other people have seen and learn from them. Most of all, it's fun to share a hobby with other people who are interested," Margaret Higbee said.
Group members converge to scan the scenery for birds at 8 a.m. every Tuesday at Yellow Creek State Park near Penn Run, a top spot for sightings of avian species. The gatherings at the park are held year- round except during deer season. There are also frequent Saturday outings at various places from August through June, as well as several out-of-state excursions each year to see birds that aren't found in the club's home territory.
Roger Higbee explained that the local state park, which is eight miles east of Indiana, is one of the best places in the state for birding because of the variety of habitats surrounding its central lake. "It has open water, marsh, fields, scrub growth, wooded areas, evergreen and deciduous trees," he said. "Each of those habitats appeals to different kinds of birds."
The park's proximity to the Chestnut Ridge adds to its value as a place to watch birds, he added: "Raptors such as golden eagles and hawks follow the ridge when they are migrating because of the updrafts. They soar on them, and that makes their trip easier."
Some of the club's out-of-state birding destinations have included: Conneaut Harbor, Ohio, to watch the migration of the shore birds in August, and Niagara Falls, to watch the waterfowl on the Niagara River the day after Thanksgiving.
The Todd Bird Club is as devoted to research and learning about birds as it is to watching them. Its members participate each year in a number of bird counts and scientific studies.
The group has an annual Christmas bird count on Dec. 26. The members disperse in a 15-mile-diameter circle and count the number of different species and the number of birds within each species that they have seen. Margaret Higbee tallies the results and turns the data in to the Audubon Society.
"There are several thousand counts each year in the United States that are sponsored by the Audubon Society," she explained. "They compile the data from all the counts nationwide, then put it online and in a booklet."
The Christmas bird count occurs nationwide any time between Dec. 5 and Jan. 5. "It began in 1900," Margaret Higbee said. "Back then people used to go out around New Year's and shoot as many birds as they could. Frank Chapman started the Christmas count as an alternative to shooting the birds."
Roger Higbee pointed out that there are specific rules that have been established for bird counts. For example, a species has to have been established in an area for at least 10 years in order to be counted.
Another repository for the information the Todd Bird Club collects is eBird, an online data site. "It's one of the largest citizen science projects in the world," Margaret Higbee noted.
Other studies the club has participated in include The Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Project (1983-1988), the second Breeding Bird Atlas Project (2004-2009), the Pennsylvania Migration Count and the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology's Special Areas Projects to establish a bird list for every state park within the state.
The Todd Bird Club has approximately 65 dues-paying members. One of them, Lee Carnahan of Homer City, led a recent group outing through Pine Ridge Park near Blairsville, a wooded recreational site maintained by Indiana County Parks and Trails.
Carnahan explained that the group strives to have as many different leaders for its outings as possible. "The only qualification for the job is to know interesting places to watch birds," he said.
According to Carnahan, some outings will involve a 4- or 5-mile walk while others have members driving to an area then walking only a short distance. "All of our trips are good," he said. "But seeing more birds or rare birds makes it exceptional."
Since he began birding, Carnahan has seen more than 250 different species in Indiana County.
According to Roger Higbee, the Todd Bird Club has members ranging in age from seventh-graders to senior citizens. "A lot of us are retired, some are college students and some are in their 40s and 50s," he said.
One of the advantages of birding as a hobby is that it can be done successfully and pleasantly with very little expense. "All you really need is warm clothes in winter, waterproof footwear and a good pair of binoculars," Roger Higbee said.
He noted that many optics companies make binoculars specifically for birders, ranging in price from $400 to $2,500: "You don't have to buy real expensive binoculars, but you should invest in some that are sealed, non-fogging and armored."
He explained that sealed binoculars won't be ruined if they fall into water and armored ones are shock-proof so they can withstand being dropped.
Margaret Higbee said her interest in birds began as a child. She saw a rose-breasted grosbeak and was upset because she thought it was hurt and the red on its breast was blood. She was relieved to find that it wasn't and has been an avid birder ever since. To date, she has spotted more than 713 species of birds throughout the United States and Canada. The rarest one she has seen is a bare-throated tiger-heron.
Roger Higbee said he was only casually interested in birds when he was young. He got more interested in them when he began dating Margaret while they were both students at the University of Pittsburgh. So far, he has seen 680 species with the rarest bird being a spectacled eider. Another rare site he enjoyed was of a house wren nesting in an old hornet's nest.
There are an estimated 10,000 species of birds in the world, but an exact count is not available.
Both Higbees enjoy photographing the birds they see, but they have different choices in equipment. Roger uses a 35 mm digital camera while Margaret uses a small digital camera with an adapter that enables her to attach it to a telescope and take pictures through it.
Margaret Higbee doesn't just watch birds, she writes about them. In addition to her job as the secretary of Creekside United Methodist Church, she produces the newsletters for the Todd Bird Club and the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. Roger Higbee is a retired geologist for the Rosebud Mining Company.
Carnahan as well as both of the Higbees stressed that new members are always welcome in their club. People are also welcome to join in any of the groups outings without being a member. Anyone who is interested can contact the Higbees at email@example.com or through the Todd Bird Club website at toddbirdclub.org.
"And no one should stay away because they don't have binoculars," Margaret Higbee said. "I always carry a spare pair in my car."
Jeanette Wolff is a freelance writer.