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It’s your nature: Reactions to a solar eclipse

“Hey Barry, you haven’t visited for a while so why don’t you make the drive out here and as a bonus, we can catch the solar eclipse.”

My sister Jamie and her husband live about 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, and in a 40-minute drive north, we could be in the band of totality for the April 8 eclipse. Knowing that the next eclipse across North America wouldn’t be for another 20 years I doubt I’d be around to view it.

The days before the event, the Pittsburgh area media kept alerting people that if traveling north to the Lake Erie area, they should be prepared for traffic jams, with state parks reaching capacity.

We decided that if traveling to Presque Isle State Park we would be in one of the most crowded viewing sites.

Next on our list was Pymatuming State Park situated on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. That location offered a longer eclipse totality time but also may be closed by the time we get there.

We decided to try the other state park in that totality area, Francis Goddard State Park.

This may seem a bit bizarre, but this rare opportunity to see a total solar eclipse wasn’t my only objective. I was hoping to find an area where many bird species and/or other species could be observed as this “super event” occurred.

As we drove northward, the cloud cover increased and we were losing hope of mostly clear skies. However, at eclipse onset, the sky was partly cloudy with the sun occasionally hidden by clouds. Fortunately, when the eclipse reached totality, no clouds spoiled the spectacle.

(I read that you could notice a temperature drop of a few degrees, however with on and off clouds that temperature change was less noticeable )

Lake Wilhelm is a centerpiece of this park. The lake has an abundant population of gizzard shad, similar to alewives that are found in Beltzville Lake.

Regularly, when the lake temperature drops to about 40 degrees F. a large die off of these fish occurs. It is an annual event. The abundance of live gizzard shad and thousands of these dead 6- or 7-inch fish attracts mergansers, grebes, cormorants, and gulls. Marshy areas at the lake’s western end holds and attracts many red-winged black birds, buffleheads, and Canada geese.

I hoped to be in an area with a variety of species so if there was a reaction to a midday darkening, I could see/hear it. My choice of the Lake Wilhelm area had one drawback, the time of totality was shorter than the parks farther west.

Carolina wrens, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, and house finches were all active and singing. Geese were honking as the males were chasing rival males from their nesting spots. The moon was slowing encroaching from the bottom right to the top left of the sun and for about an hour, little was changing regarding the amount of daylight.

As the amount of the sun’s surface was reduced to less than 10 percent, we could start noticing an amber, dusk-like setting. At that time, I noticed that the wren was no longer singing, most of the gulls that were flying over the lake settled on the water’s surface, and the geese got quiet.

The “red-wings” flew from their cattail perches and into some nearby evergreens.

In a few minutes the park area was dark. Not quite as dark as a moonless night, but dark indeed.

For a moment it was eerily quiet, then on cue, a few spring peepers (type of tree frog), started “peeping.” The males normally start their vocalizations after dark to attract nearby females.

The darkness lasted about 80 seconds.

As “dawn- like conditions” slowly reappeared, the Carolina wren commenced his singing as did the “red-wings” and we watched a few gulls take flight as well. I guess their mid-afternoon “sundown” didn’t bother them too much.

Astronomy isn’t my expertise or biggest passion but seeing the eclipse unfold and observing the birds react will be etched on my brain.

I hope some of our readers may have had a chance to travel to one of the locations of totality and can remember that forever too.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The hillsides the past week or two have been dotted with a few trees bearing small white flowers. These early blooming trees are: A. red maple B. dogwood C. serviceberry D. hop hornbeam

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: The bare area of a bird’s breast area is called a brood patch. In species where males help incubate, they have that too.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

Sometimes a partial cloud cover during the eclipse actually assisted in capturing the event better. This photo shows the moon encroaching over the sun and even with quite a bit of the sun obscured, this area of the state park was still very bright and wildlife activity seemed normal. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Male red-winged blackbirds were “clacking” and singing around the marshy area near Lake Wilhelm. However, as the last bits of sunlight disappeared, they became silent and flew to nearby trees.
Many ring-billed gulls, like this one, were flying and feeding around the lake. As the sky darkened, nearly all landed on the lake surface. I surmise they assumed dusk came rather quickly on April 8.
Not seen while looking at the bright sun, the corona surrounding the sun is visible as a hazy edge encircling the sun during the time of totality.