The Yellow-throated Vireo

Late last June I sat next to our mountaintop vernal pond that has become a permanent pond the last couple wet years. For an instant, I glimpsed the white spectacles of a blue-headed vireo as it foraged on a large red maple tree across the pond. Then I heard a singing yellow-throated vireo, followed by the droning song of a red-eyed vireo.

A yellow-throated vireo

A yellow-throated vireo (Photo by Tom Benson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I was used to hearing red-eyed and blue-headed vireos singing throughout our forest. But I was not as familiar with yellow-throated vireos. Our son Mark, who has keener ears than I, heard the same singing yellow-throated vireo at the ponds the following day and then another one singing outside the guesthouse day after day in late July and early August.

The vireo family, which includes 14 species in North America, is one of the few songbird families that is thriving. Blue-headed vireo numbers have doubled since the 1970s. Red-eyed vireo numbers have been increasing slowly but steadily from 1966 to 2014, and, here on our property during the various bird counts we’ve done, red-eyed vireos are always the most abundant songbird species, numbering 40 or more.

The yellow-throated vireo is more elusive than the blue-headed and red-eyed vireos. However, the Partners in Flight survey reported that they are common birds with a population that increased by 62% from 1970 to 2014. In Pennsylvania the Breeding Bird Survey recorded a 1.2% yearly increase since the 1960s with an estimated 48,000 yellow-throated males in our state.

A blue-headed vireo in Plummer’s Hollow

A blue-headed vireo in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Still, the blue-headed and red-eyed vireos have been studied far more than the yellow-throated vireo. Researchers have found that all three species nest in mature forests and spend their winters in a variety of forests mostly south of our borders.

The red-eyed travels the farthest to large forests in the Amazon basin. The blue-headed is a medium-distant migrant that spends its winters in shaded coffee plantations, rain forests, cloud forests, or coastal swamps from the southeastern United States coast, Mexico, and south through Central America as far as northern Honduras. Most yellow-throated vireos winter in Central and South America as far south as the mountains of western Colombia and northern Venezuela.

The yellow-throated vireo, sporting a bright yellow throat, breast, and eye-ring, is easily the flashiest of this mostly olive or gray-backed family of birds. In addition, it has a large bill, olive green upperparts with a contrasting gray rump, and bluish legs and feet. The yellow-throated and the blue-headed have white wing-bars, but the red-eyed vireo’s wings and back are a plain olive/brown.

All three species are easier to hear than see because they forage high in the trees, but telling their songs apart can be challenging. The blue-headed vireo has the highest pitched song with deliberate pauses in between, both slower than the red-eyed and with fewer notes per phrase, while the red-eyed vireo’s pitch is a little lower, droning, and monotonous, hence its nickname The Preacher Bird.

A yellow-throated vireo singing

A yellow-throated vireo singing (Photo by Tom Benson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The yellow-throated vireo’s song is similar to but lower pitched than the blue-headed vireo. In the words of ornithologist Aretas A. Saunders, “The song is long continued, consisting of short phrases separated by pauses like the songs of the red-eyed and blue-headed vireos but the yellow-throated vireo’s song is slower, the pauses between phrases longer. The quality of the sound is rather reedy and less clear than the others [and] the phrases are usually slurred together.”

The yellow-throated vireo returns to Pennsylvania in late April or early May. Its arrival records at our central Pennsylvania mountain farm range from April 29 to May 13. This vireo is the most southern of the three species that breed on our property and is found from northcentral and southern New England south to the Gulf Coast and west to the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

A yellow-throated vireo in Plummer’s Hollow

A yellow-throated vireo in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

It likes to breed in a mature deciduous forest and prefers large oaks and maples, although any tall tree will do. Back in the early twentieth century it was also a bird that nested in towns, suburban areas and cities as large as New York and Boston, but then they disappeared, possibly because of the heavy spraying of insecticides on the large shade trees to combat Dutch elm disease.

In Pennsylvania the habitat of the yellow-throateds consists of tall, old trees widely or closely spaced but without an understory, often near a water source. In our Ridge and Valley Province it builds its nest near a river or stream as high as 1300 feet above sea level. Other parts of the state where it breeds are in the northeast, northwest and southwest corners of the state, with low densities in the Piedmont and the High Plateau regions.

The male arrives first and looks for nest sites that he uses to tempt an arriving female. He sings and calls until a female comes close, and then stands over as many as three or four nest sites, each with a small amount of nest material, his head lowered as if he is building a nest. Sometimes he performs a pre-mating swaying display after he quivers his wings in response to the female’s wing-quivering.

A yellow-throated vireo nest high in a tree at Valley Forge

A yellow-throated vireo nest high in a tree at Valley Forge (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once they mate, she either accepts one of his nest sites or they may find still another. But unlike both the red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, which nest in shrubs or saplings no higher than 15 feet or as low as five feet from the ground, yellow-throated vireos build their nests in the crowns of the tallest trees, 20 to 50 feet above the ground, making this part of their lives difficult for researchers to observe.

It takes the pair about eight days to construct what ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos, and Their Allies, described back in 1950 as “the handsomest nests of any of the vireos, …the whole body of the nest is almost completely covered with small bits of variously colored tree lichens, all held securely in place by numerous fine strands of spider silk, the deep cup, with its thick walls and incurving rim above it, is neatly lined with fine grass tops…” and attached to a forked limb.

Then Bent refers to the three to five, creamy or pinkish white eggs with a scattering of dark reddish to brown and black spots on their larger ends as “the handsomest and most heavily marked of any of the eggs of the vireos.”

Three brown-speckled cowbird eggs in a house finch nest with four blue finch eggs

Three brown-speckled cowbird eggs in a house finch nest with four blue finch eggs (Photo by pverdonk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Both parents incubate those eggs, although the female covers them at night and half the day while the male alternates with his mate during the day. They vigorously protest, chase and sometimes attack any jays or crows that venture near their nest, but the only predators ever recorded on yellow-throated vireos and their offspring are long-eared owls, Cooper’s hawks, and blue jays. Like other vireo species they also contend with brown-headed cowbird parasitism and usually accept those eggs with their own and feed the nestling cowbirds that compete with their nestling vireos. Researchers have found that in nests without cowbirds, there is at least three to four vireo young, but in those with cowbirds, there is less than one vireo nestling.

The yellow-throated vireo eggs hatch into naked young in 13 days and take a further 13 days to develop into feathered fledglings that have been tended and fed by both parents the usual insect and spider fare such as caterpillars, butterflies, moths, stinkbugs, scale insects, leaf hoppers, beetles, flies and bees, most of which they forage from the interior parts of leaves and branches in the middle and upper levels of the forest canopy.

The parents continue feeding the fledglings for at least two more weeks, but the second week each parent with half the young, go their separate ways, although they may reunite at a later period for a short time. For instance, our son, Mark, last July 24, found a family group of six yellow-throated vireos in an area of young black locusts between the spruce grove and the pond area.

A red-eyed vireo in Plummer’s Hollow

A red-eyed vireo in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

But eventually they go their separate ways in late August, beginning their slow migration south. Our latest date is October 17, but more normally they leave around the middle of September, which is true for most of the commonwealth. During migration they use open woodlands and brushy woodland understory and edges and are not observed as often in the fall as they are in the spring, even though both sexes still display their bright yellow throats.

Some researchers have evidence to suggest that they may use a more eastern route during fall than spring migration and migrate in a southeasterly direction. That may explain why they are rarely seen during fall migration in Pennsylvania and then no more than one or two birds in any one place. Usually, they forage singly with mixed-species flocks of wood-warblers, chickadees, titmice, and other small songbirds.

We can only hope that the yellow-throated vireo and all its relatives continue to thrive in their nesting grounds.


The Cut-Throat Bird

On a hot, humid morning in late June, I climbed to the top of Sapsucker Ridge. As I followed the trail, I was serenaded by the singing of a hooded warbler, a black-throated green warbler, red-eyed vireos, and eastern towhees.

Rose-breasted grosbeak male

Rose-breasted grosbeak male (Photo by Mark Moschell on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Suddenly, I heard harsh, loud, and repeated calling from an agitated brown and white rose-breasted grosbeak perched on a small tree beside the trail. She emitted what I later learned was the grosbeaks’ “squawk” alarm call. And squawk she did even as I continued on my way. Then she was joined by a second bird and they squawked back and forth. It was the nattily dressed black and white male sporting his rosy-red, V-shaped breast patch. He had flown in and perched high in a tree above the female. Not wanting to disturb them further, I walked on and still they called to each other, this time using their common metallic “chink” call.

I assumed that the pair was defending nestlings and that I had passed close to them since rose-breasted grosbeaks place their nests 10 to 15 feet up in the fork of a tree sometimes at the edge of a road and that section of our Sapsuker Ridge Trail is actually an old logging road.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks were familiar to early settlers since the first ones were collected before 1760 in Louisiana, presumably during migration because they don’t breed there. After several genus name changes, they were finally placed in the Pheuticus genus in 1850 which they share with the closely-related black-headed grosbeak of western North America. Pheuticus means “shy” or “to flee” in Greek and their species’ name ludoviciana is French for Louisiana. Their common name is “cut-throats” because of their rosy breasts.

An immature rose-breasted grosbeak in Pennsylvania

An immature rose-breasted grosbeak in Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

These birds breed from southern Canada, the upper Mississippi Valley and the northeastern United States south through the Appalachian Mountains to northeastern Georgia. Here in Pennsylvania both atlasing breeding projects found that rose-breasted grosbeaks were widely distributed throughout much of the commonwealth but were not abundant in any one section. Because they were rarely found below 820 feet, they were more common across the northern third of Pennsylvania.

Their numbers also fluctuate from decade to decade. For instance, during Breeding Bird Surveys through the 1980s their numbers were high but decreased during the 1990s. And the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, early in this century, found that rose-breasted grosbeaks were uncommon in the southern Ridge and Valley Province. Nicholas C. Bolgiano, who authored the account in the second atlas, suggested that because rose-breasted grosbeaks prefer to nest in young woodlands but not in highly fragmented forests, they may be finding it more difficult to find their preferred nesting habitats as our forests age.

On the other hand, older reports of nesting rose-breasted grosbeaks in Pennsylvania indicate a wide variety of nesting habitats, i.e. young to second-growth deciduous or mixed woodlands, thickets at the edge of roads or bordering streams or swamps, old orchards, shrubby fields, parks and gardens.

A grosbeak at the edge of the Plummer’s Hollow woods

A grosbeak at the edge of the Plummer’s Hollow woods (Photo by Mark Bonta in May 2020)

I did a short study of where I’ve seen rose-breasted grosbeaks on our mountaintop property in this century and discovered, to my surprise, almost everywhere including the building of a nest at the edge of the overgrown Far Field observed by one of our hunter friends—Tim Tyler—during spring gobbler season on May 12, 2007. Other areas were along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, in or near our three-acre deer exclosure, the Far Field Road, Greenbrier and Bird Count trails, and on Dogwood Knoll—all places above 820 feet. The only wet areas were a lower section of the exclosure and another encompassing a portion of Greenbrier Trail.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks return to Pennsylvania anywhere from the fourth week in April to the fourth week in May, although peak migration is the middle of May according to McWilliams and Brauning in The Birds of Pennsylvania. However, my earliest record for their return in this century is April 29, 2007, and most reliably the first week in May. By the second week in May, during International Migratory Bird Day, we always find rose-breasted grosbeaks, most notably the 12 that we counted in 2006 and the 7 in 2007.

I more often hear their brilliant songs, described by Roger Tory Peterson as robins that have taken voice lessons, than see rose-breasted grosbeaks since the males stay hidden in leafy treetops. But back in May 8, 2018, I encountered a continual chorus of rose-breasted grosbeaks, and after much persistence managed to get a good look at a male. Both sexes sing, but it is the male that first attracts a female by singing. When she approaches him, he rebuffs her for a day or two and then accepts her.

A female rose-breasted grosbeak building her nest

A female rose-breasted grosbeak building her nest (Photo by Jen Goellnitz on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

They appear to be monogamous during the nesting season and share in the building of a nest, which takes four to eight days, despite its flimsy construction. Composed of dried sticks and twigs, grasses, weed stems, decayed leaves or straw and lined with smaller twigs, rootlets or hair, if a person stands beneath the nest, the one to five, pale green to blue eggs spotted with reddish-brown or purple, can be seen through the nest lining. The grosbeaks choose any native tree or shrub species that hides the nest with dense foliage especially maple, birch, willow, or common alder, and in Cook Forest State Park, Hal Harrison, author of A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests, found a nest in rhododendron that was lined entirely with hemlock twigs. He concluded that “Apparently any small tree or shrub will do so long as it provides sufficient shelter.”

Rose-breasted grosbeaks also share nest egg incubation duties, the male relieving the female for one-third of the daylight hours, while the female is the sole night incubator. Both sing even on the nest, especially the male, which would seem to signal to nest predators, especially blue jays, common grackles, raccoons, red and gray squirrels, that there are eggs for the taking. It is likely, though, that the singing is to warn off other grosbeaks, male and female, from their immediate territory.

Most eggs in Pennsylvania nests are laid anywhere from May 15 until June 10 and incubation lasts 11 to 14 days. Once the eggs hatch, the parents share brooding the nestlings and keeping them fed, mostly with insect larvae and other insects, especially beetles (75%), and wild fruit, such as mulberries and June berries, as well as weed seeds—smartweed, pigweed, foxtail, and milkweed.  The adults like sunflower seeds at birdfeeders in spring and summer, peas, wheat, oats, tree flowers and buds and even cultivated fruits.

An immature male rose-breasted grosbeak

An immature male rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Our native shrub, the red-berried elder, which has berries in early June, is popular with rose-breasted grosbeaks for both nesting sites and food for their young. Back in June 10, 2007, when I approached a large red-berried elder on Ten Springs Trail, a male rose-breasted grosbeak landed on the shrub. I watched while he quickly consumed all the ripe berries on two umbels before flying off, giving me one of my closest and best looks at this beautiful bird.

It takes nestlings 9 to 12 days to mature enough to fledge, but the parents care for them another three weeks, and they stay together as a family until they migrate anywhere from late August to the second week in October in Pennsylvania. They also try to keep themselves and their grown offspring safe from Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers, eastern screech-owls and short-eared owls, all of which prey on the adults and mature young.

A female rose-breasted grosbeak eating mulberries

A female rose-breasted grosbeak eating mulberries (Photo by deb.yodock on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During migration, rose-breasted grosbeaks, young and old, eat almost exclusively fruit. They overwinter in Central and South America, mainly in midland and highland forests and half-open habitats, as high as 11,000 feet in Colombia. In some areas the males are popular cage birds.

Although the overall population of rose-breasted grosbeaks has shown a slow decline from 1966 to 2015 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, they are not listed as Threatened or Endangered in any part of their range. Here in Pennsylvania the statewide population is estimated at 210,000 singing birds. So these handsome birds—glorious to look at and to hear—should be in the commonwealth for decades to come if we provide the kinds of habitats they favor.

A Sedentary May

After days of fighting my arthritic left foot and back last May, I gave up wandering our trails during my favorite time of year. Instead, I spent hours watching and listening for birds from our veranda.

The veranda side of the house from the First Field

The veranda side of the house from the First Field (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The veranda side of our house faces a roughly-cut patch of grass, the driveway, our 37-acre overgrown First Field and our large bank barn. Beyond the field a wooded Sapsucker Ridge rises. The trees on the veranda side are mostly black walnuts along with a young tulip tree our son, Dave, planted several years ago off one corner of the veranda and century-old lilac shrubs at the other corner.

From the veranda I can also see our backyard lined with a thick growth of forsythia. Beyond is our garage at the end of our road. Our home is perched atop a bluff so our front yard drops off steeply to an uncut old lawn, a small stream and wetland area. Dave also transplanted several trees from our surrounding forest—white pine, red oak, and more tulip trees–to eventually replace century-old black locust trees as they topple and split during frequent wind storms.

Our yard on the other side of the house from the veranda slopes down through a couple dying ash trees and a heavy undergrowth of wildflowers and grasses to a flat, grassy area before it reaches the Laurel Ridge forest. In other words, our house sits in the midst of field and wooded edge habitat, and although my hearing is not as sharp as it used to be, I can still hear forest and field birds singing and calling while sitting on the veranda.

A great-crested flycatcher in its cavity nest

A great-crested flycatcher in its cavity nest (Photo by Ferd Brundick on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

For instance, on International Migratory Bird Day, I heard and counted 30 species during a couple morning hours on the veranda even though it was cool and foggy. Most notable were the loud “wheeps” of the first great-crested flycatcher of the season. This cavity-nesting flycatcher thrives in forested openings with tall, dead trees where it builds its snakeskin-lined nest.

Nearly all the birds that return in May breed on our mountain. The blue-gray gnatcatchers build their nest on a black locust branch. The gray catbirds favor the forsythia hedge and the lilacs, flying back and forth in front of the veranda, living their busy, noisy lives, and the northern cardinals tuck their nest in the one remaining multi-flora rose bush beside our driveway.

Most lively of all are the Carolina wrens. After nearly a week of rain, I managed to walk up to our two-car, cement-block garage where an eastern phoebe family always nests on one of the ledges inside the garage. The phoebe female sat tightly on a nest in the back of the garage while Carolina wrens were feeding nestlings on the ledge beside our car. Both parents had caterpillars in their bills and scolded loudly when I walked into the garage. I retreated but checked again later when one Carolina wren scuttled out from beneath the car and flew outside protesting my presence.

Carolina wren chicks

Carolina wren chicks (Photo by James Van Gundy on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

That was on May 18. The following evening we had a huge storm as wind swept rain over the veranda. Then we noticed two Carolina wren fledglings clinging by their feet to the living room/veranda window screen, while a third one huddled on the floor below. When Bruce and I went outside to see if we could help them, the adults appeared, and off they all flew into the storm around the house to the back porch. This turned out to be the garage ledge family. After that they acted as if they belonged on the veranda and the back porch and often scolded us when we appeared.

One afternoon they flew on to the veranda table and vocally protested when Bruce sat on his usual seat close by. Near dusk they came chattering into an old phoebe nest on top of the veranda. We counted the three fledglings as they settled in for the night and were serenaded by their parents in the lilac shrub. Without doubt, Carolina wrens are the most charming and entertaining of any songbirds we have here.

Virginia bluebells at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, PA

Virginia bluebells at Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve, PA (Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Early in May Virginia bluebells bloomed in our backyard as well as a wide swath of ajuga in our lawn. Both blue-colored flowers attracted returning ruby-throated hummingbirds. One warm afternoon I pulled on a red sweatshirt, went outside to join Bruce on the veranda, and told him I was going to attract a hummingbird. Almost immediately a hummingbird buzzed me as Bruce watched. Our daughter-in-law Paola, down in the guesthouse, faithfully hung three hummingbird feeders from the front porch and spent hours watching those feisty birds compete for food.

A hen turkey in the field of Plummer’s Hollow

A hen turkey in the field of Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Then there was the hen turkey. I’m not certain she’s the same one we see every spring, but she always seems to have a hidden nest somewhere in First Field or maybe in the woods at the base of Sapsucker Ridge. Last spring she first appeared walking down our driveway on the morning of May 6 when I stepped outside. After that we saw her numerous times. One afternoon I spotted her on the barn bank while I sat on the veranda. She walked up close to the edge of the driveway in First Field and then paraded across the middle of the field. The next day I saw her on the Laurel Ridge side of the house in the flat area. But with all her walking about we have never seen her with a family. I wondered if she had lost her young because of the incessant rain and storms or predators or perhaps she was infertile.

Still another mystery was what happened to our bluebird couple. Early in the spring we had put up a new bluebird nesting box on a power pole beside an open area near the garage. The bluebirds occupied it, but the box was far enough away from the veranda that I only watched it from afar.

A bluebird couple on a bluebird box

A bluebird couple on a bluebird box (Photo by Virginia State Parks on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The same day the hen turkey first walked down the driveway, I saw a tree swallow, his deep blue back reflected in the sunlight, swoop through the air near the bluebird box as if he wanted that nest box for himself. But the male bluebird perched above the box in a watchful stance and at last the tree swallow gave up, flew the length of First Field toward the spruce grove and disappeared.

I was so engaged with all the birds I was watching, that it was several weeks before I realized that I hadn’t seen the bluebirds for a while. On a clear day in late May I took a short walk across the lawn and up the driveway, displacing three small rabbits eating grass in the median strip. That’s when I noticed a strange figure blocking the entrance to the bluebird box and went over to have a look. It was the desiccated tail of the female bluebird. I called Bruce to help me open the nest box and we discovered the dried-up female bluebird hanging over her complete nest but there was no sign of chicks or eggs. I wondered if the male had been unable to find enough food for her during the many rain storms or if he had starved or been killed by a predator.

Indigo bunting in the rain in Plummer’s Hollow

Indigo bunting in the rain in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

As I sat on the veranda day after day, I noticed that the suite of singing birds changed from hour to hour. And almost every day there were new arrivals. The same day the bluebird held off the tree swallow, the first indigo bunting sang from the topmost branch of a medium-sized walnut tree in the middle of First Field. On May 18 in mid-afternoon I heard the first eastern wood-pewee singing his lazy “pee-a-wee.” The next day sitting in my study with the window open, I heard the blasting song of the returning Baltimore oriole. Two days later, a cerulean warbler sang in the backyard walnut trees. That was the last bird species to return.

I listened to my favorite songsters, the wood thrushes, every morning and evening and a whip-poor-will at 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. as he circled the house calling. There were frequent song contests between male scarlet tanagers up in the walnut trees. And the randy chipping sparrows often mated on black walnut branches.

A hooded warbler in Union, Pennsylvania

A hooded warbler in Union, Pennsylvania (Photo by Dave Inman on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On a beautiful Memorial Day I spent from dawn to dusk outside listening to and watching our yard and field birds. Two surprise birds were the hooded warbler that landed on top of a nearby veranda chair and the yellow warbler singing down near the old apple tree at the edge of First Field beside the driveway. Another bonus at 7:06 p.m. was a barred owl that called from Sapsucker Ridge.

All in all, I had had a memorable Memorial Day and sedentary May in which I recorded 45 bird species from common ravens and turkey vultures to a Cooper’s hawk and common yellowthroats.


Those April Birds

Every April I expect more from the month than it gives me. It warms up and then it freezes. It rains then it snows. But through all the changes in the weather, spring forges ahead. Wood frogs mate in the mountaintop ponds. Spring peepers call in the First Field wetland. Best of all are the migrating bird species that appear to set up housekeeping here or that make our mountain a fuel stop on their way farther north.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker on a tree with rows of holes (Photo by Vitalii Khustochka on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

First to arrive on April Fools’ Day last spring was a yellow-bellied sapsucker that was drilling sap wells in a hickory tree along Ten Springs Trail. Every spring I hear their mewing cries before I see them. Usually they are males with their flaming red throats because they arrive a week ahead of the white-throated females. But both sexes have red crowns, dull, golden breasts and bellies and black faces, wings, and backs accented by white.

They don’t stay here long because they nest in the hardwood forests across the northern tier of Pennsylvania. More commonly, they nest in the forests of Canada and the northeastern United States. And unlike most of our migrant birds, their numbers are increasing.

Next to appear, on the ninth of April, was a brown thrasher. Nearly always I’m treated to several days of nonstop, repetitive songs by these sleek, cinnamon-brown, long-tailed singers. Mimic thrushes like gray catbirds and northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers are known to have more than 2000 songs in their repertoires.

A brown thrasher in Pennsylvania

A brown thrasher in Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Brown thrashers breed throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States in brushy environments such as our First Field and its surrounding thickets. In Pennsylvania their numbers have held firm between the atlasing periods after a decline during the 1970s and early 1980s according to the annual Breeding Bird Surveys that were done then. During the second Atlas period (2004-2009) the Pennsylvania population was estimated to be 80,000 singing males.

The following day at 8:30 p.m. I joined our son Dave outside as we listened to the first American woodcock of the season peenting, flying up into the sky, and twittering as he plummeted back to earth. We had been listening for this species that usually performs here in March and had almost given up hope since folks in the valleys had been finding woodcock females on hidden nests for over a week. Still, we were grateful not to miss this spring ritual even though our woodcock was a johnny-come-lately.

Two days later, high up in the Second Thicket near the top of Sapsucker Ridge, I heard the first, unmistakable loud “zhee” of a blue-gray gnatcatcher. Smaller than chickadees, they resemble miniature mockingbirds with white breasts and long, black tails edged in white that usually stick almost straight up from their blue-gray backs.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher building a nest in Pennsylvania

A blue-gray gnatcatcher building a nest in Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I knew I could expect a pair to build their nest high in a yard black locust tree as they have during most of the 48 years we have lived here. They breed from coast to coast, north to south, and even deep into Mexico. In Pennsylvania they prefer to nest in the edges of deciduous and mixed woodlands. Noisy in their courting and nest-building, they are easy to watch as they construct small nests anywhere from a few feet off the ground to 70 feet high on horizontal branches.

During that same walk, I saw the first hermit thrush of spring halfway up a hill on Sapsucker Ridge Trail where I always see migrating hermit thrushes. Unfortunately, they fly seven miles across Logan Valley to the Allegheny Front to sing and nest. Distinguished from other thrushes by their reddish tails that dip slowly up and down when they perch, they are secretive and mute, rarely sharing their exquisite song here.

The only spotted thrush that winters north of the United States border with Mexico, they like to nest in mature and second-growth high elevation mixed deciduous-coniferous forests in Pennsylvania and as far north as the boreal and hardwood forests of Canada and the northern United States. This species too is thriving in Pennsylvania with as many as five singing males per kilometer (0.6 mile) in our north-central high elevation forests.

A ruby-crowned kinglet

A ruby-crowned kinglet (Photo by Becky Matsubara on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Sitting on Alan’s Bench on a warm April 13 I spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet foraging on the young Norway spruces across from the bench. Usually I hear these tiny birds calling “look-at-me, look-at-me” before they sing a song that warbles all over the scale. The perky, greenish-gray males erect ruby-red patches on top of their heads when they are excited.

Although they breed in the coniferous forests of northern New England and Canada, they always spend a couple weeks here before they move on. Friendly and fearless, they often allow me to watch them closely as the males chase each other, each one displaying his crown.

The following day I walked down our road to listen for the pair of Louisiana waterthrushes that Dave had found the previous day poking in the streambank as if searching for a nest site. I heard one waterthrush singing near Dogwood Knoll. But farther down the road, Waterthrush Bench earned its name as three waterthrushes countersang, flew back and forth over the stream, and up the road bank and back almost directly below me, all seemingly contesting that section of the stream, but then they flew farther down above the stream, singing and chasing each other.

A Louisiana waterthrush at a stream in Pennsylvania

A Louisiana waterthrush at a stream in Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I continued to the bottom of our mile-and-a-half road, pulling garlic mustard and pitching off fallen rocks and branches from the road. When I returned to Waterthrush Bench an hour later, the trio of waterthrushes were still singing, chasing, and poking into the ground. All the while their tails swayed like metronomes marking their own music. Their ringing songs announced the arrival of the first warbler species of spring.

Although waterthrushes resemble members of the thrush family, with brown backs and brown streaking on white underparts, they also have white throats, white eyebrow stripes and long, pink legs the same as northern waterthrushes and ovenbirds, all of which are similarly colored and the only three species in the Seiurus warbler genus.

In Pennsylvania, Louisiana waterthrushes are near the northern edge of their core range and are especially abundant in our own Ridge and Valley Province, according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Our state, as a whole, contains about eight percent of the species’ global population with an estimated 35,000 singing males, and they are doing well here as long as we have the extensive forest and high-quality streams they depend on.

An ovenbird

An ovenbird (Photo by Kent McFarland on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

By April 20 returning and migrating birds were appearing almost every day. In the Dogwood Hollow Knoll area I heard the first “tee-cher,” “tee-cher” of an ovenbird. Years ago I found, along Guesthouse Trail, an ovenbird female building her nest. It looked like the domed-covered Dutch oven ovenbirds were named for. I was privileged to watch her through nest-building, egg-laying, feeding her nestlings, and finally when they fledged.

Ovenbirds are distinguished from the waterthrushes by an orange stripe outlined in black at the top of their heads. They also like to nest in large older deciduous or mixed forests such as we have here, from Canada to northern Georgia and Alabama. Pike and Forest counties had more than 25 singing males per kilometer and overall Pennsylvania is estimated to host a whopping 1.6 million males during the nesting season.

Then, on April 23, two more warbler species returned to nest on our mountain—black-throated green and black-and-white warblers. Another forest-interior bird, black-throated green warblers have black throats and mostly yellow faces and are said to favor hemlocks at higher elevations for nesting, but I hear and see them in our deciduous forest. When they arrive they sing their buzzy “zoo-zee” song but later they add “trees, trees, beautiful trees” to their repertoire.

A black-throated-green warbler singing

A black-throated-green warbler singing (Photo by Claudine Lamothe on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Black-throated greens nest from southern Canada and the northeast United States west to Minnesota and south to Alabama and again Pennsylvania is an important breeding area for these lovely birds with an estimated 355,000 singing males.

Black-and-white warblers climb up tree trunks like nuthatches and are striped black and white. A summer resident in mature and second-growth forests in the eastern United States and southern Canada, they prefer a dense forest understory. Unfortunately, their numbers in Pennsylvania decreased 23 percent between the first and second atlasing periods, although we still host an estimated 250,000 singing males.

On the last day of April I saw a house wren in a young black walnut tree, heard the singing of a northern parula, and saw and heard several common yellowthroats. And finally the ethereal song of a wood thrush emanated from Sapsucker Ridge. All those species nest somewhere on our mountain. But none can match the singing of the only thrush species that spends its breeding season here. Almost always I can depend on a wood thrush to sing out the month.