The Waterfowl Itch

tundra swans at twilight by Mark Lehigh

Tundra swans (photo: Mark Lehigh, CC licence)

When I hear and see flocks of tundra swans flying northwest in early March, I get what I call the “waterfowl itch.” I want to leave our still brown, gray, and mostly empty mountaintop forest and visit as many lakes as possible to feast my winter-weary eyes on brightly-colored migrating waterfowl. And although, over the years, my husband Bruce and I have visited such places throughout the commonwealth, Yellow Creek State Park remains one of our favorite locales to waterfowl watch.

Of course, if we lived closer to Pymatuning in the northwest or Middle Creek in the southeast, they would be our first choices. But both require long drives and an overnight at our ages. However, Yellow Creek State Park is a little over an hour away and has an excellent Waterfowl Observatory as well as several viewing areas and coves along its southern shore.

Last March, which was much colder than usual, we waited and waited for the lakes to thaw and the waterfowl to head north. Finally, on the last day of the month, it was clear and a cool 34 degrees, so we packed a lunch and armed with our binoculars and scope, we drove to the park.

Fifteen tundra swans sat on the ice sheet along the shore of the lake when we pulled into the park, and even though they were relatively close to us, they remained still as we peered at their white bodies and black bills through our scope. Farther out in the open water we spotted rafts of diving ducks—hooded mergansers, buffleheads, greater scaups, and ring-necked ducks.

Hooded merganser by Rick Leche

Hooded merganser (Rick Leche, CC licence)

The handsome male hooded merganser with his signature fan-shaped white patch on his black puffy head is an uncommon but breeding species in Pennsylvania. Its numbers have been slowly increasing though, according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Kevin Jacobs, who wrote the hooded merganser account, credits the large number of wood duck boxes, especially on state game lands, which hooded mergansers can use for nesting in addition to large trees. He also mentions the importance of suitable wetland habitats being provided for common mergansers courtesy of the increasing number of beavers. In fact, the confirmed number of breeding hooded mergansers in the first Atlas (1983-89) of 42 increased to 127 by the second Atlas (2004-09). But buffleheads, greater scaup, and ring-necked ducks, while seen occasionally during the summer in Pennsylvania, breed farther north and west of the state.

The smaller male bufflehead also has a puffy head with a large white patch, but his body is mostly white in contrast to the black, white, and rusty brown body of the male hooded merganser. The greater scaup male is a study in gray and white with a dark green head, while the ring-necked duck should be called ring-billed because of the white ring near the tip of his mostly gray and black bill. The female ring-necked duck is dark brown in contrast to the male’s mostly black and gray body with a vertical white mark in front of his wing, but she also has a white ring on her bill.

When we drove into the picnic area, few people were about, but a couple hundred dark gray American coots bobbed their heads as they swam in the cove. A member of the Rail family, they rarely nest in Pennsylvania and confirmed breeding coots have decreased from 11 to two in the second Atlas, probably because the state lacks large freshwater marshes with floating aquatic vegetation interspersed with large, open areas of water that breeding coots need.

Greater yellowlegs by Tim Harding

Greater yellowlegs (Tim Harding, CC licence)

At Yellow Creek State Park the wetland rang with red-winged blackbird song and a greater yellowlegs hunted along the shore, deftly catching little fish washed up on the land with its slightly upcurving bill that is longer than its head. This shorebird nests in northern Canada, and I remembered that the last time I had been close to one was a July in Newfoundland where it no doubt was nesting. As it walked on its long, elegant legs it often teetered.

When we took the usual quarter mile walk through the woods to the Waterfowl Observatory, we were surprised by a sign guiding us to a new (to us) Wetland Walkway. There we saw our fifth duck species, a pair of mallards—by far the most common waterfowl in the state and greatly prized by hunters. Altogether, mallards account for more than half Pennsylvania’s annual duck harvest and averages from 60,000 to over 90,000 a year.

As we expected, the Waterfowl Observatory yielded views of rafts of ducks but on that day only off the left side in Grandpap’s Cove. Also as we expected, when I slid open the viewing slats, a cold wind off the lake tore through the observatory, numbing our hands as we held our binoculars or adjusted the scope.

First we identified five canvasbacks, the males’ bright white backs and longer red necks distinguishing them from gray-backed redheads, which we saw later from the beach area. Both are also diving ducks and usually prefer deeper water, but canvasbacks sometimes graze in flooded fields during migration. The area we were looking at from the observatory included a long, grassy, shrubby island in relatively low water.

Female and male northern shoveler by Matthew Paulson

Female and male northern shoveler (Matthew Paulson, CC licence)

The more we looked, the more we saw water birds poking their heads up from behind the grasses and shrubs. We counted five great blue herons standing in a row and dozens of Canada geese calling constantly which were joined by a single tundra swan. Then, at last, we had an excellent view of four male northern shovelers and one female, both sexes sporting their distinctive long, spoon-shaped bills, the female a drab brown, the males with reddish-brown bellies and sides, white breasts, and dark green heads.

Northern shovelers, canvasbacks, and redheads do not breed in Pennsylvania, although the second Atlas reports that a couple records do exist from earlier times for northern shovelers and canvasbacks. Canvasbacks and redheads declined precipitously in the twentieth century because prairie wetlands where they breed were drained. In addition their breeding grounds had droughts and too many ducks were harvested in hunting season, but lately their numbers have rebounded due to conservation efforts on those breeding grounds.

Blue-winged teal by Len Blumin

Blue-winged teal (Len Blumin, CC licence)

When we left the observatory, we returned to the picnic grounds for a late lunch and enjoyed watching the small wetland area along the shore. Three blue-winged teals poked in a puddle and ignored us as we moved close to observe them. The male’s white facial crescent easily identifies him, but both sexes display the large, chalky-blue patch on their forewings that gives them their name. Even though the blue-winged teal is abundant in North America, it has declined as a breeding species in Pennsylvania from 29 confirmed in the first Atlas to 11 in the second. Loss of temporary wetlands in healthy grasslands—their preferred breeding habitat—has been dwindling in Pennsylvania. Other bird species, i.e. northern harriers and spotted sandpipers that breed in the same habitat, are also declining. Still, we always see a pair of blue-winged teals when we visit Yellow Creek State Park.

Near the wetland area swam a raft of common mergansers—males with white bodies, black backs, and dark green heads and the equally striking gray-bodied females, with white breasts and chins and red-crested heads. Common mergansers nest in Pennsylvania especially along forested rivers and their confirmed numbers increased from 119 in the first Atlas to 241 in the second, due to “clean, biologically productive rivers and streams,” Jacobs writes, as well as “forest maturation in Pennsylvania and the resulting increase in large trees…” where they nest.

Altogether, we had long and close looks at 10 duck species as well as the greater yellowlegs, American coots, a belted kingfisher, Canada geese, tundra swans, killdeer, herring gulls, and the great blue herons. As usual, at Yellow Creek State Park I had had a productive day that amply soothed my “waterfowl itch.”


Click on photos to view larger versions on Flickr.

Winter Porkies

porcupine up a tree in a snowstorm

Porcupine in a snowstorm, below the Road to the Far Field

Deep winter and at last a good tracking snow had fallen. While I may puzzle over some tracks, there is no mistaking those of porcupines. They plow through the snow on their naked, flat, pigeon-toed feet like miniature bulldozers, and when the tracks freeze, deer, opossums and foxes use them as winter highways.

When we first moved to our central Pennsylvania mountaintop in 1971, seeing a porcupine was a rare occurrence, but over the last couple decades porcupine numbers on our square mile of property have proliferated. During several days in early January last winter I found abundant tracks and numerous porcupines along the trails and in a variety of trees. Tracks wandered into and out of our three-acre deer exclosure, in and around our Norway spruce grove, and along the Far Field Road. Porcupines sat high in trees beside our hollow road, on top of Sapsucker Ridge, down in Roseberry Hollow and near the top of a Norway spruce tree. The latter was snoozing as its quills whitened in the falling snow.

Without leaves on the trees I could see many debarked crown branches. On Dogwood Knoll I found tiny pieces of bark at the base of a large chestnut oak tree, a sign that a porcupine had been eating the inner bark of one of the favorite trees of some of our porcupines. They also like red oak and sugar maple. Because they prefer small branches near the tops of these trees, we rarely lose a hardwood tree to their winter gnawing.

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

But our Norway spruce grove is porcupine central in the winter. Like white spruce further north, Norway spruce is a favorite winter food for porcupines. In addition, it provides excellent protection from winter weather. Porcupines like hemlocks too, especially for protection, and they eat the needles and twigs but not the bark because it is too strong in tannins. Our hollow hemlocks used to be popular with porcupines in the deep winter, but as the hemlocks have thinned and, in some cases, died from the ravages of the hemlock wooly adelgids, porcupines, ever adaptable, have switched to other trees, most notably our Norway spruces.

Porcupine tracks led into the grove from Sapsucker Ridge and the Far Field Road. By late January numerous spruce trees bore fresh tooth marks from gnawing porcupines. Porcupines move slowly in the woods, just as I do, so they are easy for me to track. Unlike colder, northern places, where they are out mostly at night, here they are out and about both night and day. No doubt our porcupines were especially hungry last winter because the acorns, one of their favorite autumn foods, had failed for three years.

One day I surprised a porcupine sitting on the snow-covered Far Field Road. When I approached it, it stood up and slowly climbed a large sugar maple tree. Fifteen days later, in early February, I followed what may have been the same porcupine from the base of the spruce grove to the Far Field Road. The trail ended at the entrance to a hollow, fallen log below the road where a porcupine turned its back to me.

According to Uldis Roze, who has spent 24 years studying porcupines in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, porcupine fur has excellent insulating properties, which allows them to use hollow logs, trees, and rock crevices as winter dens. Usually they turn their backs to the den openings, sit with their bodies propped up by their tails, and hold their front paws against their chests. They turn their hind paws sideways so their naked foot pads don’t touch the ground. When resting in high trees, they roll up into balls and can withstand extremely cold temperatures. No wonder they are able to live as far north as northern Alaska, Quebec, and Labrador, in fact, at or beyond the tundra line.

A young porcupine in deep snow by Martin Male

A young porcupine in deep snow (photo by Martin Male, CC licence)

By mid-February, the so-called “polar vortex” was not only dropping our thermometer to as low as ten degrees below zero on some days, but it began to snow in earnest. And again I found the same porcupine tucked into the hollow log along the Far Field Road, its back white with snow.

With 18 inches of snow on the ground, I broke out my snowshoes and headed up to the spruce grove. As I broke trail around the grove, I saw fresh porcupine tracks and then spotted a porcupine at the base of a spruce tree. It started up the tree when it realized I had seen it, but it didn’t climb more than a few feet before it went around to the back of the trunk as if once out of sight, I would forget it was there. Then I noticed a circle from its body at the base of the tree as well as a pile of cylindrical, gray and/or brown, inch to an inch-and-a-half-long porcupine scat (droppings). It must have been there for some time.

I also broke trail along the Far Field Road and encountered the porcupine in the same hollow log after a night of stripping bark from the lower spruce grove trees, just as the one I saw earlier specialized in the upper part of the grove.

Every time I passed the Far Field Road hollow log for most of February, the porcupine was either in the log or plodding its way back to it. And then tragedy struck. On February 27 I found a dead porcupine behind the spruce grove, still clinging to the thin branch of a black locust tree. Apparently, it had fallen from the large spruce it was gnawing and had broken the locust branch off on its way to the ground. Probably it had died sometime after it had hit the icy snow since there were puddles of urine around it.

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, 7 months later

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, seven months later

Roze says, in his book The North American Porcupine, that porcupines risk injury and death from falling out of trees because they are relatively heavy and prefer to feed far out on branches that are often brittle. I know I’ve watched them foraging on hardwood tree branches, expecting them to fall any moment as they crawl farther and farther out on a limb that bends with their weight. Sometimes porcupines do fall, but they are usually badly hurt. For instance, one of Roze’s study animals had a series of injuries that he called “consistent with falling belly-first out of a tree.”

According to Roze, another researcher, Wendell Dodge in western Massachusetts, who autopsied 200 porcupines back in 1961, found healed leg, hip, and rib fractures, broken teeth, injured eyes and ears, hernias, and soft-tissue injuries. One even had a four-inch-long pine branch in its abdomen.

A week later, in early March, I checked on the dead porcupine and found a live one sitting next to it on the ground under the large spruce tree almost as if it was holding a late wake for it. Eventually it shuffled over to the spruce trunk, deftly climbed its mostly bark-stripped trunk, and moved far out on the limb.

I followed other porcupine tracks from the upper section of the grove over to the neighbor’s clearcut on Sapsucker Ridge. There I saw a small but old chestnut oak and a bent, larger one, both of which had debarked branches. Beneath them were bark pieces and scat littering the ground. I continued following the tracks for 20 feet to the remains of a hollow tree log left by the loggers. At its entrance was a huge pile of porcupine scat. I knelt down on the snow and peered inside the log. A porcupine was tucked into it.

Both log dens were 200 feet or so from the spruce grove. While porcupines wander much greater distances during the summer, their temporary winter dens, which they use for an average of 23 days, are usually within 300 feet of their food trees. The spruce grove porcupines followed that pattern.

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

The same porcupine appeared three days later at the base of the large spruce where the other porcupine had died and reluctantly climbed the tree when I spoke to it. It looked as if that beautiful tree had been completely girdled high up. So too had at least four other large spruces. But according to Gary Gillmore, a state forester, Norway spruces throw out new limbs if they have been topped.

By March 10 I was seeing as many as four porcupines feeding in our hollow hemlock trees, leaving nipped twigs and scat on our road. Although this was still winter food, probably they had left dens upslope early and were using hemlock habitat for shelter, meager though it was.

Near the end of March, I found only two porcupines in hardwood trees and they were eating buds. The rest seemed to have disappeared once spring arrived. But I had enjoyed my porcupine winter and the chance to learn a little about how they survive the cold months.


All photos taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta, except where indicated.

Midwinter Cranes

Sandhill cranes at SGL 284 in western PA

Sandhill cranes at State Game Lands #284 in western PA (photo by Dave Inman, CC licence)

I never thought I would see sandhill cranes less than 20 miles from my home in central Pennsylvania. Yet there I was last January, sitting in our car with my husband Bruce, watching five sandhill cranes through our scope as they foraged in a small wetland near State College.

When the word went out on January 4 that Alyssia Church had discovered the cranes at Fairbrook Marsh and on nearby farm fields, I was surprised. At first I didn’t bother to check them out, because I am not what is known in birder parlance as a “chaser.”

Then our son Steve called to tell me that he had seen them on the farm field, so the next time we headed for State College, we took an alternate route and located the cranes where Steve had described. But because they were several hundred feet from the country road where we were parked, and we had not brought our scope, we didn’t get a good view of them.

We decided to try again and on a cold, clear January 23, this time armed with our scope, we scanned the field. There was no sign of them. I was not deterred, though, and Bruce drove slowly along the road for a mile or so toward the marsh while I kept a careful watch out the window. Finally, I spotted large gray blobs that looked like rocks out in the marsh behind a clump of beige grasses.

“There they are,” I said as I peered closer through my binoculars.

Sandhill Crane at Middle Creek WMA, eastern PA

Sandhill crane at Middle Creek WMA, eastern PA (Henry T. McLin, CC licence)

We parked in a church parking lot that overlooked the marsh and set up our scope. One head popped up, followed by a second. One of them preened its feathers. Then the pair spread and flapped their wings, a signal for all five to stand up and walk together on their long, elegant legs. At five feet tall they stood out against the marsh grasses, like gray ghosts, as the water in the wetland steamed in the cold. Next they moved to another spot where they were in the open, giving us an excellent view of them.

Repeatedly, they poked their long, pointed bills into the ice-covered marsh in search of food, most likely worms, insects, and even mice. As they foraged, a crane remained on alert and stood on one leg. The five moved together like a team or a single organism. All were clothed in gray feathers with beige highlights and seemed oblivious to the seven degrees temperature as well as to the busy rural roads on three sides of the marsh. Even more surprising was the housing development complete with road, backyards, and a man walking a leashed dog above the marsh and cranes.

We watched the cranes for nearly an hour, moving nearer beside the rural road overlooking the marsh and setting up our scope. But the cranes remained unperturbed as they fed, preened, and occasionally sat back down on the frozen ground.

Later, I learned that sandhill cranes during the winter spend most of their time in so-called maintenance activities—foraging, moving, resting and comfort and that their comfort activities are preening, head rubbing and scratching, and body shaking, although preening is their most common comfort activity. They use an alert investigative posture when inquisitive about something nearby. Adult pairs or family units are especially alert. Since family units stay together from hatch time in summer until the following spring, the five cranes at Fairbrook Marsh appeared to be a mated pair, two offspring, and a second adult.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the eastern greater sandhill cranes (Grus Canadensis tabida), one of six subspecies of sandhill cranes, had finally arrived in our area of central Pennsylvania. After all, they had been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania, where a pair first appeared in spring and summer of 1991 in Plain Grove Township, Lawrence County, for two decades. A second pair, or perhaps the same pair, reappeared in northeastern Lawrence and southeastern Mercer counties again in the breeding season in 1992.

Sandhill Cranes on a crisp December Morning by Dave Inman

Sandhill cranes on a crisp December morning, Washington, PA (Dave Inman, CC licence)

The following winter, on January 3, a flock of 25-30 sandhill cranes fed for half an hour on corn in a partially harvested field in Plain Grove Township. This marked the first time a large flock of sandhill cranes had been seen in Pennsylvania. Since then, they’ve been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania and, as the flock has increased over the years, in eastern Pennsylvania especially Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Today they have been spotted in 30 counties at all times of the year and breed not only in northwestern Pennsylvania, but in northeastern Sullivan and Bradford counties. Ironically, according to Doug Gross, Endangered and Non-game Bird Section Supervisor for the Game Commission, they have bred in “Crane Swamp” not far from Sullivan County’s breeding area near Dushore. The swamp, though, was named for great blue herons, which are called “blue cranes” by many rural Pennsylvania folks.

The first evidence of breeding sandhill cranes in the Commonwealth was documented on August 4, 1993 when Nancy W. Rodgers and Lois Cooper found the first young crane with its parents off Plain Grove Road in a pasture near large old trees.

“We could see the red on the heads of the two adults and the third one had a rust-colored head with light area above and below the eye. They were feeding as they walked south,” Rodgers wrote in Pennsylvania Birds.

The following day Rodgers discovered them a mile southeast of the first pasture in a field with a stream. She watched as “one adult caught a small animal and slowly killed it by beating it on the ground and stabbing it with its bill. When the animal finally died and lay on the grass, the second adult ate it.”

In all likelihood, the pair with their young had emerged from a nearby wetland where they had built a large nest of surrounding vegetation, which they had collected and tossed over their shoulders to form a mound above standing water, back in April. In it the female had laid two large, light olive-colored eggs speckled with darker brown. Both sexes had shared incubation duties over a 30 day period.

Even though the young can leave the nest eight hours after hatching, usually they wait 24 hours for the first hatched or continue to wait until the second one hatches before moving. Still, they stay well-hidden within a wetland until the young are 90 days old. If the food supply is abundant, two young survive. If not, only one chick does. Both parents care for and feed their offspring.

Sandhill Cranes in grass by Dave Inman

Sandhill cranes in western PA (Dave Inman, CC licence)

Rodgers had calculated that the pair, if they had young, would be emerging from the wetland in early August, and she was right. Over the following years, despite searching, it took until 2009, when Bonnie Dersham, while surveying for Massasauga rattlesnakes on SGL #294 in Mercer County, found a recently hatched crane chick and unhatched egg on a nest on May 5, according to Gene Wilhelm’s account in the definitive Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. That same year, in the Pymatuning region, Land Management Group Supervisor Jerry Bish and Northwest Region Land Management Supervisor Jim Donatelli discovered a nest with two two-day-old crane chicks.

With so many bird species declining, the spread of the eastern greater sandhill cranes, which originally bred in nests in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and southern Ontario, to as far east as Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York state, has been a pleasant surprise, especially since all other crane species, worldwide, are in decline and sometimes number very few birds including our whooping crane.

Doug Gross and other ornithologists attribute their great expansion to more understanding of the importance of wetlands as well as the cranes’ ability to feed on waste grains and whatever small prey is available in their nesting and wintering areas. Most eastern greater sandhill cranes still migrate south in the winter to southern Georgia and central Florida, but, as our wintering cranes have shown, even temperatures far below zero, as we experienced last January, do not faze them. Their sharp beaks repeatedly broke through the ice and their feathers insulated them from the frozen ground they sat and walked on it. This particular little flock left Fairbrook Marsh at the end of January perhaps for warmer climes.

Decades ago Bruce and I had traveled both to Willcox, Arizona and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to watch thousands of wintering sandhill cranes, knowing we would never see this species in Pennsylvania. How wrong we were!

Sandhill Crane over SGL #284 by Dave Inman

Sandhill crane over PA State Game Lands #284 (Dave Inman, CC licence)

The 114th Christmas Bird Count

Carolina Wrens by Dave Bonta

The Carolina wren pair that hung around the house in the winter of 2013-14

Last December I watched as day after day brought cold temperatures and more snow. We were expecting our son Dave’s English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, and her 14-year-old son, Alex, for the holidays, and Dave had already polished the sled runners.

Rachel, who lives in London, is interested in birds and arranged her schedule so she could be here for our Christmas Bird Count on December 21. It was the 114th CBC, as it’s fondly called, and is the longest running citizen science survey in the world.

Frank Chapman started the CBC back in 1900 to counter the competitive Christmas Side Hunt. On Christmas day folks chose sides, went out, and shot all the feathered and furred quarry they could find, and the team that killed the most won the competition. Chapman rounded up 17 birdwatchers from Pennsylvania to California, and suggested that they count birds instead of killing them. On that first count, five of the 25 CBCs took place in eastern Pennsylvania.

From that humble beginning, the CBC is now continent-wide with over 2300 count circles 15 miles in diameter. Ours is centered on a tiny crossroads in Sinking Valley called Culp. It includes our mountaintop property where we’ve been counting since 1979. For a long time I and one of our two birding sons—Steve or Mark—counted here. When they left home, I soldiered on alone, but a few years ago, Carl and Kurt Engstrom volunteered to cover the steep Sapsucker Ridge portion of our mountain while I covered the somewhat easier Laurel Ridge portion.

Recently, Steve and Mark moved back to the area, and Steve is now the CBC coordinator for the Juniata Valley Audubon Society count circle and is assisted by Mark. Determined to get total coverage of our circle, they have been going down to the valley to places that other members of our group are not able to count.

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

I figured Rachel and I would have a lovely slog through the snow, but after she and Alex had an invigorating time sledding on the 19th, they watched with us as the mountain turned from white to mostly brown under all night thaws and daytime temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit. Then rain and mist fell the evening before our CBC and into the early morning with dire predictions for the rest of the day.

The Engstroms set out by 8:00 a.m. after Carl reported four eastern bluebirds on our electric wires near the bluebird box and helped to count the meager number of feeder birds—a disappointing contrast to the huge numbers when we had seven inches of snow on the ground and temperatures had ranged in the low teens.

Undeterred by the weather, Rachel and I donned raincoats. I also carried an umbrella and kept my new “waterproof” binoculars underneath my raincoat, which did not make it easy to spot birds quickly. My so-called waterproof boots leaked as usual. Rachel, on the other hand, insisted in her British way that “layers of wool” would keep her warm and dry as did her waterproof boots and wool hat. Still, when the first deluge of rain hit us, like a cold tropical downpour, she didn’t object to sharing my umbrella through the worst of it.

The spruce grove in winter

The spruce grove in winter

Her job was to write down the bird species and numbers while I called out the identifications. At first she didn’t have much to do. We headed up to the spruce grove where I was certain we would find birds. But the birds hadn’t sought refuge there. We did instead, hoping for a cessation of the pounding rain. As we waited, we peered down into the valleys that were white with fog. At least we were above that. Those folks birding there might not fare too well. But we weren’t faring very well either, having neither seen nor heard any bird, not even on the heifer carcass staked out to attract golden eagles in front of a trail cam behind the grove.

On we sloshed to the Far Field. Still nothing.

“Are you game for a longer hike,” I asked Rachel.

Of course she was. As a British citizen, she was used to rain. Lots of rain.

We threaded our way through the trail-less woods beyond the Far Field and finally saw a downy woodpecker and northern cardinal and heard a black-capped chickadee or two.

Red-tailed hawk with vole

Red-tailed hawk with vole

From the Second Thicket, also empty of birds, we took a steep trail halfway down the mountain, stepped over a rivulet, and followed another trail through a hollow I long ago named Ruffed Grouse Hollow because I had once counted 40 ruffed grouse there on a CBC back in the early eighties. Not on this one, though. But we did find a couple of blue jays, a red-bellied woodpecker, and more cardinals and chickadees. And we heard a red-tailed hawk. Or did we? Blue jays are excellent mimics of red-tails.

“Put a question mark beside it,” I told Rachel.

All the while it rained, sometimes hard, sometimes not so hard. My shoes and socks were thoroughly soaked, but I walked fast enough that they felt reasonably warm.

A couple of times we questioned ourselves. What were a 73- and 52-year-old woman doing in this mad quest to count birds? Having fun, we assured ourselves over and over.

At last we reached the hunting lodge, and Rachel photographed the antlers hung on its back outside wall, especially one that held an old robin’s nest in its tines. After that, we took our first rest under the shelter of the porch and watched the rain. I had hoped that the hunters might have put some feeders of deer suet in their yard as they had the last time I had been there on a CBC. Then, I had been alone and in the midst of a snowstorm. But this time there was no suet or birds.

Maybe there would be birds in their autumn olive hedgerow or their cultivated fields. Nothing!

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Back into the forest we went in search of the upper trail. And then, at 11:00 a.m., our luck changed. A red-tail flew over even as blue jays scolded.

“Count that red-tail,” I told Rachel. “It’s probably the same one we heard earlier.”

We saw a few more chickadees, downies, and cardinals. Then we plunged into an overgrown area in search of another trail heading back toward the Second Thicket. As I floundered around, Rachel said, “Look.” She pointed up at a cluster of black birches with fruiting catkins that were twittering with American goldfinches. I counted and re-counted and searched in vain for a pine siskin. After numerous counts, I settled on 29.

Just like that we were on a minor roll. Two golden-crowned kinglets answered my pishing and not Rachel’s trilling birdsong, which was her British equivalent of our pishing. I had been hoping for kinglets and was grateful.

“Maybe we’ll see a brown creeper,” I said. “It’s difficult to tell their call from a kinglet’s.”

“Look,” Rachel said once again, this time with considerable excitement in her voice, and she described the location of what resembled the Eurasian treecreeper. Sure enough, it was a brown creeper scuttling up a tree trunk like a tree-borne mouse.

Brown Creeper by Kelly Colgan Azar

Brown Creeper (photo by Kelly Colgan Azar [license])

That ended our short bird rally, although we did add still more chickadees, downies, cardinals, and three tufted titmice to our list, all birds we could have counted at our bird feeders. I did locate one hairy woodpecker in our forest, but after five hours and four miles of slogging through the rain, we had counted a mere 11 species. We also spotted one of the bluebirds Carl had seen earlier as we approached our yard, and with other species at our feeders—white-throated, song and American tree sparrows, mourning doves, slate-colored juncos, house finches, white-breasted nuthatches, and Carolina wrens—we had a grand total of 19 species.

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Later, at the bird count dinner, no one had done much better, although Carl and Kurt had found one hermit thrush amid the grape tangles on Sapsucker Ridge and our sons Steve and Mark had spotted a rusty blackbird in a large flock of European starlings and brown-headed cowbirds down in the valley. Even though we had dedicated counters, we had one of the worse counts ever—only 43 species in all.

In other sections of Pennsylvania on other days counters did better—155 species statewide with Southern Lancaster County’s 102 species the best count in the state. Still, we know that as citizen scientists, according to the Audubon website, our counting helps protect species and their habitat and has “allowed researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” With the CBC and other bird counts, as well as other scientifically-based studies in whatever field a person might be interested in, we amateur naturalists can make a difference.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.