Disappearing Birds

Last February a hard crust covered the icy snow most of the month. That led to the highest number of common feeder birds I could remember since moving to our west-central Pennsylvania mountain home in 1971.

A goldfinch at a tube feeder

A goldfinch at a tube feeder (Photo by The Last Cookie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One snowy dawn seven northern cardinals, instead of the usual pair, flew in together and fed from the red tube feeder. Later in the morning eight cardinals joined three song sparrows, four American tree sparrows, and so many dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows on the ground that I couldn’t distinguish one from the other or count them but there were dozens and dozens.

In mid-afternoon the snow turned to freezing rain and sleet. The little birds twittered loudly when I went outside to spread still another pound of mixed seeds that slid down the hill as did many of the birds. Then the rest descended like the proverbial locusts—a dark, moving blanket covering the white, slick surface.

Seeing so many common bird species on the ground as well as the American goldfinches, house finches, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, and tufted titmice on the hanging feeders, seemed a sign to me that at least our backyard birds were thriving.

But then last September an article appeared in Science entitled “Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished” by Elizabeth Pennisi. The piece was based on a comprehensive study of 529 North American bird species from 1970 to 2018 by 11 scientists from seven institutions led by applied conservation scientist Kenneth V. Rosenberg of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Unlike the majority of scientific papers, the results were so startling and unexpected that many news outlets covered the story.

Three billion birds lost, almost one third of North America’s bird population, from an estimated 10 billion birds in 1970 to seven billion in 2018, was the thrust of the study. Even Rosenberg was surprised by the results.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” he told Pennisi. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, making up for the losses, because common birds are usually generalists and more able to adjust to changes in their environment.

An eastern towhee singing

An eastern towhee singing (Photo by Hal Trachtenberg on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Furthermore, over 90% of the loss (2.5 billion birds) came from 12 bird families. The sparrow family was at the top of the list with 862 million gone including 20% of song sparrows and 40% of Savannah sparrows and eastern towhees.

The warbler family, with 618 million less, had sustained the second highest loss with half of Wilson’s warblers gone, 30% of Cape May warblers, and 60% of Canada warblers, for example.

The third family with heavy losses (440 million) was the blackbird family. Most surprising was the red-winged blackbird, the species always thought to be our most common native bird. They had gone from 260 million in 1970 to 170 million today. In addition, half the common grackles and 60% of bobolinks were lost.

The lark family at 182 million less occupied the fourth position and the finch family the fifth with a loss of 145 million including 40% of common redpolls and purple finches and 90% of evening grosbeaks. Still other losses included shorebirds that had declined by 37% and swallows, nightjars, and swifts by almost 50%.

An evening grosbeak

An evening grosbeak (Photo by Jean-Guy Dallaire on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

While most feeder watchers were not surprised by the steep decline of evening grosbeaks (I haven’t heard or seen one in decades), I found it more difficult to grasp the lower numbers of our backyard birds—one in four blue jays and rose-breasted grosbeaks had disappeared and one in three Baltimore orioles, dark-eyed juncos, and white-throated sparrows.

After seeing the number of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows crowded at my feeder area last winter, I was especially surprised at their decline. Blue jays too seemed as noisy and abundant as usual, and our First Field supports several pairs of breeding song sparrows every year.

I was suffering from what study co-author Adam Smith, a biostatistician for Environment and Climate Change Canada, calls “shifting baseline phenomenon.” He says that, “because the declines are gradual, we lose track of just how abundant these birds used to be.”

A house sparrow on a bird feeder in Pennsylvania

A house sparrow on a bird feeder in Pennsylvania (Photo by Cam Miller in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

That was even true for two non-native bird species. Difficult as it was to grasp, house sparrows had suffered a 70% decline and European starlings 50%, both species whose numbers have already plummeted in their native countries.

The researchers used annual road-based, North American Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird count data over the last 50 years as well as separate aerial surveys of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other bird families to document their losses and, in some cases, gains. From 2007 to 2017 they also looked at weather radar data to estimate the number of spring migrating birds and discovered that the biomass of birds had declined 14% during that time with the greatest loss especially in eastern North America.

Forests across the continent have lost a billion birds. In eastern forests that was 17% of our birds and in boreal forests 33%. Grassland bird numbers have fallen by 53%, a decline of 700 million birds, primarily due to habitat loss from the intensification of agriculture and development.

“These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife,” Rosenberg told Gustave Axelson, editorial director of Living Bird, in a comprehensive article about this subject. “And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

In other words, these disappearing birds are like canaries in a coal mine, warning us about the losses of birds and wildlife because of our unsustainable use of the Earth’s bounty.

Shooting passenger pigeons in 1875 in Louisiana

Shooting passenger pigeons in 1875 in Louisiana (Drawing by Smith Bennett in Wikipedia, in the public domain)

The researchers seemed haunted by the extinction of the then most populous bird on earth—the passenger pigeon—in only a few decades.

Still, all was not gloom and doom. They credited governments and societies that invested in saving some birds, for instance, our Endangered Species legislation and the banning of DDT for the amazing resurgence of most raptor species by 200%, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and conservation action by duck hunters for a 50% increase in waterfowl numbers, and dedicated conservation funding and efforts by hunters for a 200% increase in wild turkey numbers.

However, the increase of vireo species by over 50% and gnatcatchers by 15% is more of a puzzle. But then there are no simple answers for the anthropogenic problems birds and other wild creatures face in our crowded world.

Scientists now think that instead of focusing on single species at risk for extinction, we must conserve major ecological community types, or biomes, where birds live. We need to have collective action on a national scale, passing legislation such as the bipartisan proposed Recovering America’s Wildlife Act which would increase federal funding for state conservation programs by more than 1,500%.

The 50 million people in Canada and the United States who say they like to watch birds can also help, scientists say, by making their windows safer, keeping their cats indoors, reducing their lawns because the 60 million acres of lawn in our country produce little food for birds and other wildlife, and planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers not only to attract birds and wildlife in general, but the dwindling pollinating insects. Folks can also avoid pesticides on their land, drink shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee, and use less plastic especially single-use disposal bags, bottles, and utensils.

Most important of all, bird watchers should become citizen scientists and report birds wherever they see them by joining eBird, Project FeederWatch, the Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count, and/or the Migratory Bird Count. If they have excellent sight and hearing and know their birds well, they can also volunteer to conduct a Breeding Bird Survey route. As Rosenberg declares at the end of “Scientists Say It’s Possible to Bring Birds Back but the United States and Canada Must Act Now,” in Living Bird, “Birders are literally the eyes and ears who contribute the data that allow scientists to monitor the health of bird populations.” [The quote appears in the print version of the article, Autumn 2019, p.57, rather than in the online version, which was published with  a different title.]

A horned lark in a farm valley of Eastern Pennsylvania

A horned lark in a farm valley of Eastern Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Now it’s early February and my husband Bruce and I will be conducting a Winter Raptor Survey along a route we drive every winter in a nearby valley. That’s also when we look for the large flock of horned larks we always find on newly-manured farm fields. Maybe if we’re especially lucky we will see a wintering snow bunting or Lapland longspur. That happened almost four decades ago when we went on a Juniata Valley Audubon Society winter bird field trip to the valley and found both species mingling with an enormous flock of horned larks.

 

Squirrel Wars

Last autumn, our granddaughter Eva, who was staying with us for several months, started complaining about the noise in the attic above her bedroom.

The squirrel cage in our attic (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

The squirrel cage in our attic (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

At first, I dismissed it as the usual small animal noises on the roof or even in the attic. My bedroom was next to hers and I wasn’t hearing anything out of the ordinary. After all, Eva had lived in town homes all her 22 years and wasn’t used to country life in an old (1871) clapboard farmhouse.

Back in 1971, after we bought our home, we told the contractor who was putting in a second floor bathroom that we were hearing animals in the walls rolling black walnuts.

The contractor, who had worked for the previous owners for decades said, “Oh, that’s the red squirrels. This place has always had them in the walls and attic. That’s why I built the squirrel cage in the attic.”

The squirrel cage is a six foot by 12 foot construction of stiff, fine wire mesh, hardware cloth in which we were instructed to store all items that squirrels might chew on or use as nesting material.

An American red squirrel eating a nut

An American red squirrel eating a nut (Photo by Connormah in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

For two years the squirrels continued their lives in our home until my husband Bruce’s parents moved into our guesthouse. I mentioned the squirrels to Pop, and one day, when I came home from shopping, Pop pointed proudly to my clothesline. Hanging by their tails were two dead red squirrels that he had shot. That deed ended the rollicking in our walls and attic, and, in fact, the red squirrel population on our mountain.

Now, more than four decades later, Eva’s complaints continued. Finally, in mid-December, I too began to hear running feet above my ceiling. I wondered if the red squirrel population had recovered but had seen no sign of any in the woods. Then, on a dreary December 29 morning I heard a commotion in the attic. I opened the attic door in my study and saw not a red but an eastern gray squirrel peering down at me. It had used the juniper tree outside my study window as a springboard to the eaves where it had chewed a hole into the attic.

Our caretaker, Troy, repaired the eaves, but he worried that the squirrel might be trapped in the attic, so he set a live animal trap where I had seen the squirrel and baited it with shelled peanuts. The following morning I heard scrabbling in my bedroom ceiling. Troy had caught a squirrel in the trap. Later he released it several miles from our home and re-set the trap.

A gray squirrel at a bird feeder

A gray squirrel at a bird feeder (Photo by Orest Ukrainsky in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In the meantime, I battled gray squirrels at our three bird feeders hanging from our back porch and on the ground below where they gobbled up most of the birdseed I spread for the birds. Never in all the years we lived here had we had so many squirrels at our feeders. Our dozens of black walnut trees had had few black walnuts, and the acorn crop in our forest had been sparse for the second year in a row.

Meanwhile the squirrel wars continued in the attic. The peanuts were eaten night after night in the trap but no creature was caught. On the morning of January 13 I watched a squirrel climb the juniper tree, stopping occasionally to eat some snow. I alerted Bruce and he saw the squirrel leap on to the roof and come into the attic by way of a new hole it had chewed near the old, patched one.

Troy climbed the ladder to patch the new hole and carefully examined the eaves around the house for new holes but found none. Later, he returned with a trail camera tied to a heavy paint can that he put near the live animal trap. He baited the trap with a plastic cylinder peppered with small holes and filled with shelled peanuts.

At 2:00 a.m. I heard a squirrel run across my bedroom ceiling. The trap was not sprung and the cylinder was gone. I began to think we had Einstein squirrels in residence.

Game cam image of a gray squirrel in an animal trap in our attic

Game cam image of a gray squirrel in an animal trap in our attic (Photo courtesy of Troy and Paula Scott)

That evening Troy came by to check his camera. It looked as if three gray squirrels, one flying squirrel, and a short-tailed shrew had figured out how to get into the trap, grab the capsule and/or previously the peanuts, and escape without springing the trap.

I wasn’t too concerned about the flying squirrel. Apparently, southern flying squirrels sometimes live in attics, “gain[ing] access through windows, crevices under eaves, and similar apertures to the attics of homes,” according to one researcher as quoted in Flying Squirrels: Gliders in the Dark by Nancy Wells-Gosling, p.112. Probably they are the creatures that I do sometimes hear in the attic or walls, but their sounds can’t be compared to the noise of gray squirrels.

A short-tailed shrew

A short-tailed shrew (Photo by Gilles Gonthier in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The short-tailed shrew, on the other hand, was a puzzle. They do eat plant food, including corn and beechnuts during the winter, and, judging by our attic shrew, shelled peanuts as well. Still these are burrowing animals not known to live in houses, although I once found one in a bucket in our basement.

The weather worsened with cold and snow, and we declared the attic war a stalemate. Troy’s last check of his trail cams showed only one flying squirrel left in the attic. Besides, it was dangerous for Troy to use the ladder, and we hoped his latest eave repair would deter any more destruction by the gray squirrels.

But the squirrel war outside continued. After an eight-inch snowstorm on January 19, followed by minus one degree Fahrenheit the next day, the birds and squirrels were desperate for food especially since ice-covered snow was as deep as a foot in the forest.

From two above zero on January 21, the temperature rose above freezing, and it rained for two days, and then the thermometer dropped to 22 degrees. Our feeders and the ground below was swamped by 15 bird species and at least seven hungry gray squirrels. They were joined in the dawn light by a large cottontail rabbit.

Feeder birds blanketing the snow

Feeder birds blanketing the snow (Photo by John in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To give more ground-feeding birds a chance against the squirrels, I started throwing birdseed out on the frozen snow on the opposite side of the house near the veranda. This worked for a couple days until the squirrels caught on and managed to dominate both feeding areas. However, on the last day of January it was seven degrees below zero. Birds, especially the white-throated, song, and American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, blanketed the ground below the back porch and on the veranda side, but the squirrels gave up earlier than usual.

The continual snow, rain, and freezing that characterized most of February brought more gray squirrels to the feeding areas. But most returned to their tree nests in the forest every evening. The two most aggressive ones stayed close to the food. One lived beneath our generator near the back porch and the other stayed in the juniper tree even when it was snowing hard. I assumed they were two of the original attic dwellers.

By February 23 we had 11 gray squirrels, and they began attacking our two tube feeders. One squirrel pulled out the plastic guards around the holes of a new red metal feeder I had received at Christmas and ate all the seeds. Never had I had to fight such determined and bold squirrels. Another climbed up our back porch storm door, trying to get inside late one morning while our son Dave was eating in the kitchen.

A relatively squirrel-proof bird feeder hangs on our back porch (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

A relatively squirrel-proof bird feeder hangs on our back porch (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Finally, the squirrels defeated me, especially the three biggest, boldest pests that never quit for the day, and I removed the tube feeders, leaving only a much larger, relatively squirrel-proof feeder to feed the birds. Still, they mobbed the porch, and when I threw out pounds of mixed seeds for the birds, the squirrels ate most of it.

Our outdoor squirrel war continued even into mid-March, and I acknowledged utter defeat by the 11 squirrels that never left until the snow melted.

On the other hand, we never heard or saw another gray squirrel in the attic so you could say that our squirrel war of 2018-2019 was a draw.

 

Christmas Bird Count

Every December I scout for birds in anticipation of the Christmas Bird Count. Last December, despite the mostly warmish and sodden weather, I spent hours searching usually “birdy” areas on our mountain and finding low numbers of even common birds.

A golden-crowned kinglet in Chester County, PA

A golden-crowned kinglet in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One warm, foggy morning I pished up two golden-crowned kinglets and a downy woodpecker on Laurel Ridge Trail. On another warm but overcast day I startled a winter wren foraging in the midst of a fallen grapevine that had come down with a tree near the Far Field thicket. As I walked Butterfly Loop on still another overcast but breezy day, a red-tailed hawk flew over First Field.

Then the weather briefly cooled and a half inch of snow fell overnight. I sat on Alan’s Bench as it continued flurrying, before the sun appeared. Continuing on to the Far Field, I saw two song sparrows, two golden-crowned kinglets, a pileated woodpecker, and a small flock of dark-eyed juncos. That ended the first week when there were a few birds abroad.

The second week was almost bird-less with the exception of a pair of hairy woodpeckers. They appeared several times in our yard pecking at the base of the driveway black walnut tree where squirrels had left the remains of black walnut shells.

The fruit of a common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis

The fruit of a common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis (Photo by Sten Porse in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Because of the unusually wet year, wildlife food was scarce, so the feeder birds were forced to compete with an army of gray squirrels. Already most of the acorns in the forest were gone, and even the fruits of our yard hackberry trees and the nuts of our many black walnut trees were scarce.

Finally, December 15th dawned. That was the day our Juniata Valley Audubon Society had chosen to participate in the nationwide 119th Christmas Bird Count. It was 37 degrees and raining with an icy fog. Still, at first light, five gray squirrels bounded into the feeder area along with a pair of northern cardinals, one dark-eyed junco, four white-throated sparrows and a mourning dove. While I prepared breakfast, I kept an eye on our back porch feeders and as it grew lighter, a tufted titmouse appeared below the porch steps along with more squirrels. But no matter how many times I chased the squirrels, they quickly returned and kept the birds away.

At 7:43 a pair of American goldfinches and a black-capped chickadee landed on the tube feeders. Later, house finches and a white-breasted nuthatch joined them. That was after Kurt and Carl Engstrom arrived, prepared, as usual, to help count birds on the steeper, brushier section of our property. I, in the meantime, suited up and headed out the opposite direction, while my husband Bruce took up his position in front of the bow window to count feeder birds.

A song sparrow at Wildwood Lake, Harrisburg, PA

A song sparrow at Wildwood Lake, Harrisburg, PA (Photo by Henry T. McLin in Flickr, Creative Commons license

Carl had stopped to tally the sparrows in the lower section of First Field so I didn’t count them. Our “sparrow field” dripped with rain and was enshrouded in fog. Still, I saw several chickadees and at least three song sparrows and heard the calls of American tree sparrows. Many juncos popped up from the protection of dried goldenrod, but the fog prevented me frlom any distant viewing with my binoculars.

After crossing the field, I climbed up the powerline right-of-way to the top of Sapsucker Ridge but found no birds. Then I walked on to the rain-soaked vernal ponds. Still I saw no birds. Next I sat on Alan’s Bench at the top of First Field in front of the spruce grove but only heard the distant calls of American crows.

I retreated into the shelter of the spruce grove and found a pile of fresh, hair-filled bear scat. Nearby was a dead doe, her head twisted around her body that had been mostly eaten. She hadn’t been there the previous day when I had last visited the grove and I wondered if she had been killed by a bear or had been shot in rifle season and succumbed to her injuries.

A barred owl

A barred owl (Photo by Jim Oskam in Flickkr, Creative Commons license)

I sat on my hot seat within sight of the doe’s remains for half an hour and had just gotten up to resume my walk when I heard a “woo-woo,” quickly followed by a barred owl’s “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all,” uttered five times from the base of the spruce grove. As I exited the grove, I looked up at the trees and saw the owl fly from the top of one spruce tree to another. That owl, it turned out, was my one unique species contribution to our JVAS count.

It started to rain harder, but I walked on the Far Field Road almost to Coyote Bench before bagging it for the day. After all, my preliminary days searching for birds at the Far Field and the thickets beyond hadn’t netted me any rea;l sightings. Besides, despite an umbrella, my winter jacket and bug pants were soaked and trying to use binoculars while balancing an umbrella was almost impossible.

Kurt and Carl, in the meantime, had beaten their way through the underbrush up and down Sapsucker Ridge above Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails and found 19 species including two golden-crowned kinglets and a brown creeper. But their best discovery was the only eastern towhee for our JVAS count.

A dark-eyed junco on a feeder in Codorus State Park, Hanover, PA

A dark-eyed junco on a feeder in Codorus State Park, Hanover, PA (Photo by Henry T. McLin in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Including my barred owl, we had found a mere 20 species on our mountain and our 12 feeder species—one junco, two cardinals, four white-throated sparrows, two mourning doves, four tufted titmice, four black-capped chickadees, four American goldfinches, five house finches, two white-breasted nuthatches, one red-bellied woodpecker, and one song sparrow—were the same species the Engstroms picked up on foot.

But other JVAS counters scored at Canoe Creek State Park where they counted 10 common goldeneyes, 11 lesser scaup, one green-winged teal, four mallards, and a great blue heron. In addition, they found six long-tailed ducks, the highest number of this species in the 78 statewide CBCs, as well as the only blue-winged teal in state count.

In open water in other areas of our 15 mile diameter count circle, which is centered in Culp in Sinking Valley, our counters added more mallards in addition to 393 Canada geese, one gadwall, two American black ducks, 10 hybrid mallards, one northern pintail, and two buffleheads. They also counted 21 ring-necked pheasants in the valley, their other highest number in the state species—and 90 wild turkeys.

Cooper’s hawk in Gettysburg, PA

A Cooper’s hawk in Gettysburg, PA (Photo by Henry T. McLin in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Their raptor numbers were low—three Cooper’s hawks, one sharp-shinned hawk, eight red-tails, nine American kestrels, and three bald eagles. Their bonus songbird was 156 horned larks. Altogether, JVAS birders counted 62 species. As Laura Jackson wrote in The Gnatcatcher, the JVAS newsletter, it was a “dapper day of ducks,” but “the songbirds were hunkered down in the brush or hiding under evergreen branches trying to stay dry. Quick forays to bird fe ders were infrequent; very few birds braved the rain pelting from gray and gloomy skies.” I could only agree with her assessment.

Later, in July, while reading Nick Bolgiano’s comprehensive article “The 2018-19 Christmas Bird Count in Pennsylvania” in Pennsylvania Birds, the magazine of the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology (v.33 no.1, Dec. 2018 – Feb. 2019), Bolgiano mentioned several trends that I had noted on our mountain. For the first time in our 40 years of counting, we had found no ruffed grouse. They, along with great horned owls, American crows, Carolina and black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice, are suspected to be species suffering from West Nile Virus.

Other declines, such as 40% lower numbers of dark-eyed juncos, were probably due to the cold and early snow in November, which sent the juncos farther south. Gradually declining American tree sparrows had their lowest number since 1937. On the other hand, white-throated sparrows were the most numerous sparrow species in the state. And there were record-breaking numbers of swamp sparrows.

Mallards seen during a CBC in Allegheny County, PA, in 2015

Mallards seen during a CBC in Allegheny County, PA, in 2015 (Photo by Ed McKaveney in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Many other species—mallards, American black ducks, Wilson’s snipes, northern mockingbirds, and eastern meadowlarks—continued to decline, and no American woodcocks were counted, another declining species. Still others—bald eagles, black and turkey vultures, merlins, and peregrine falcons—continue to increase. And I never would have imagined that Pennsylvania would have breeding sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans, both species that appeared on CBC counts.

Such discoveries and more were made by the citizen scientists who went abroad and counted birds on a day chosen by their group from December 14, 2018 to January 5, 2019. The Lititz count had the most species (102), and it was the first time they had recorded the highest species’ number since 1924 when they had a species count of 31! They were closely followed by Southern Bucks County (100) and Harrisburg (95) but statewide, birders found 160 species.

Since I have been a part of this effort for so many years, I plan to be out this year no matter what the weather may be, knowing that the trends in bird populations that Bolgiano has reported are only possible if large numbers of birders continue to participate in this oldest of citizen science endeavors.

November Snow

The snow began in the early morning hours of November 15. By dawn, at 26 degrees, a freezing snow was falling.

The edge of the Plummer’s Hollow woods in snow

The edge of the Plummer’s Hollow woods in snow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

After breakfast I took a walk to the Far Field over a layer of icy snow. All was silent except for the constant swish of the falling, freezing snow.

I made it back home before it changed from freezing snow to a true midwinter snowstorm. Songbirds and gray squirrels flocked to our back porch where I had spread birdseed and had two hanging feeders. By evening we had seven inches of snow and then it turned back to freezing rain.

But sometime during the night it must have changed back to snow, although it had stopped before dawn. Later in the morning, when I suited up to go out, gaiters snug around my boots and pants, I measured 11 and a half inches of snow in the yard. That was by far the earliest, deepest snow we ever experienced during our 47 years on our mountain.

It was a slow slog up to Alan’s Bench but I pushed on, one foot after another, noting vole tracks on the field trail, porcupine tracks in and out of the three-acre deer exclosure, and several deer trails. About three-quarters of the way up to Alan’s Bench, one set of deer tracks, instead of crossing the trail, led straight to my goal. That was the first time I could remember that a deer had broken trail for me instead of my tracks providing a trail for deer.

Still, it took me an hour of exertion to make the less-than-a-half–mile trek uphill to Alan’s Bench in front of the spruce grove. I reached it just as a patch of blue sky opened wide enough to shine the sun briefly on the snow-laden Norway spruces, reward enough for my struggle to reach the bench. A flock of “snowbirds,” known to birders as dark-eyed juncos, greeted me.

Despite the mostly gray skies and heavy wind, the view from the bench of mountains and farm valleys as distant as 30 miles away was excellent. Best of all were the oak leaves that cascaded down in the wind and decorated the snow, creating what looked like an exotic rug.

Feeder birds on raspberry canes near the bird feeders

Feeder birds on raspberry canes near the bird feeders (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The following day it was two degrees above freezing and still overcast. Six gray squirrels competed with the flock of American goldfinches, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatches and white-throated sparrows for birdseed from our back porch floor and hanging feeders. My husband Bruce and I looked in vain throughout the day for rare or unusual visitors, such as the eight pine siskins and female purple finch we had seen the previous week, but only the usual suspects flew in and out.

Once again I struggled up to Alan’s Bench, but since I had broken trail the previous day, it was easier. This time the deer had followed my trail. A few songbirds were out and about near the bottom of the exclosure, but none were in the spruce grove, not even the juncos. I assumed that they had discovered our feeding area instead.

The spruce grove in the snow

The spruce grove in the snow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The spruces were still snow-covered and occasional beams of sunlight escaped the heavy cloud cover. Many of the oak trees still held what looked to be almost the full complement of their colorful leaves.

On still another dull, overcast and barely above freezing day, birds and squirrels, unable to dig down through the frozen snow, mobbed the feeder area—six house finches, a dozen or more goldfinches, several blue jays, two white-throated sparrows and many juncos. And finally a handsome fox sparrow on its way south for the winter stopped to feed on the fallen seeds—a gift for me on that dull Sunday morning.

The stream flowing through the snow

The stream flowing through the snow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

I walked down our mile-and-a-half entrance road through the forest that parallels our stream. The stream was full of snow melt and noisy as it flowed through the leaf-covered snow. A few birds were out—a red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, a couple northern cardinals, American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos, tufted titmice and a Carolina wren.

After four more days of mist and fog with the temperature stuck at 34 degrees night and day, the snow pack was down to a couple loud, frozen, crunchy inches on Thanksgiving morning. But at last the sun was shining, and it was 16 degrees at dawn.

A black-capped chickadee in November

A black-capped chickadee in November (Photo by John Sutton on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I was thankful for the gorgeous day, but not for the nine gray squirrels in the feeder area dominating all the birdseed on the ground along with three blue jays. House finches numbered 10 and lay claim to both feeders, although the goldfinches pushed in too. But white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees waited for a break in the finch blockade to dart in and grab a seed. One chickadee even landed on the back kitchen door and peered in as if asking for help.

I crunched my way easily to Coyote Bench on the Far Field Road and was relieved to sit on the bench and soak in the silence of the holiday with only an occasional train whistle or jet plane breaking the peace. The snow was filled with the icy tracks of deer going in all directions, especially along the Far Field Road where it had melted through to the frozen leaves in a couple places. Once, I heard the “pik, pik” of a downy woodpecker.

A common raven in winter

A common raven in winter (Photo by Trekking Days on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The vernal ponds that had remained full all that wet year were frozen hard and smooth as an ice rink, and I regretted I had long ago given up ice-skating. As I sat on the Vernal Pond Bench, a common raven perched nearby and called.

It was even colder the following morning at 14 degrees. I took another crunchy walk to the Far Field under a sky the azure blue of deep winter. Then I discovered bear tracks crossing the edge of the Far Field that were not there the day before.

The next day—the 24th—we had freezing rain so I didn’t get out until the 25th. Every tree branch was still encased in ice, and I walked down our road throwing branches off that had broken under the weight of the ice. The farther down I walked, though, the more slippery our frozen gravel road was. Finally, with ice beginning to fall and melt in the 38 degree temperature, I turned around halfway down the road. It was beautiful as the ice glistened in the sunlight, but I was getting soaked through my heavy winter jacket as pieces of ice bombarded me. While I had had to carefully watch my footing downhill on the ice, walking back up was easier since the ice on the road had melted.

Squirrel tracks in the snow

Squirrel tracks in the snow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The following day rifle season began, and there was barely enough icy snow left for our hunters to track deer. The wind blew as hard as 50 mph for a couple days, but on the 29th of November infrequent snow flurries the previous day and overnight had again whitened the trails with a thin layer of tracking snow. I could see a few deer, coyote, and squirrel tracks during my walk. The valley below was brown and green, but it remained winter white on our mountaintop.

There were no new birds at the feeders, but those that were there and the squirrels had consumed 40 pounds of oil sunflower seeds and 30 pounds of mixed seeds during the two weeks of premature snowy weather.

But even though winter had arrived much earlier than usual, I rejoiced in the frozen white and blue of a winter landscape and was thankful that the weather had driven the ticks underground for the duration.