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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Arctic Terns in Elk County

    My wife Sharon and I have been trying to visit all the counties in Pennsylvania for some years now. So we decided to visit Armstrong and Forest Counties which would be two new counties for our list. After we completed that task we started driving around the area visiting state parks. While visiting Kinzua Bridge State Park in McKean Co. during a thunderstorm (not recommended by the way) we picked up a brochure for Elk State Park. So we determined that we should head south to Elk State Park just across the border in northern Elk County.
    Upon our arrival and not having a map of the park, it looked as if there was only one way in, so we proceeded down the only road toward the lake. We arrived at a nice size parking area adjacent to the lake. While still in the car I immediately saw two white birds flying over the lake. I informed Sharon that they gave the impression of being terns but were very distant and hard to distinguish. I stepped out of the car and got the binoculars on them and indeed they were terns.  I figured they would be Forster’s Terns but I wanted to check them out just in case it was something unusual.
    The terns were still too far to identify, so I setup up the scope. By the time I had the scope setup the birds were approaching for a closer view. I could see the stiff wing beats and the very uniform gray color on the upper wings. The upper wing had no black on the primaries that I could see and after looking at photos that I procured, they didn’t reveal any black markings either. As the birds passed in profile I noticed the thin black trailing edge on the under wing primaries. The outer primaries only had a trace of black on the tips of the feathers. Good field marks for Arctic Tern. So I was psyched.
Arctic Tern at Elk State Park
     The birds had very dark, red bills which to me appeared short. The birds were bullnecked in flight; that is, the neck was short but thick. The breast looked to be gray and not white as in Forster’s Tern. The tail on both birds was deeply forked, but one bird showed a very long tail while the second bird appeared to have a shortened tail. I’m not sure if this was the angle of view or maybe a bird not yet in full alternate plumage.
    We observed the terns for approximately a half an hour to make sure of the identification and than made a call to put the word out on the PA listserv. This was only the third sighting of Arctic Tern for me in Pennsylvania, the other two being in Delaware County along the Delaware River. I assume that this would be a first record for Elk County but have not checked into that matter. About this same time there was also an Arctic Tern spotted at Beltzville State Park in Carbon Co. As far as I could tell there was no significant weather factors in the area at the time. I have also submitted a report to the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee.
     So in the end, we added two new counties and eight new state parks to our list and had a great opportunity to study a rarely seen bird in Pennsylvania.

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