The Glory Days of September

After the slow, hot days of summer, September with its often cooler, drier days is a welcome relief.

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall (Photo by Kaaren Perry on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Most of the fair-weather songbirds are still here, but some are already on the move by the beginning of the month. I looked out on a wet day in early September and caught a flush of birds taking shelter in the juniper tree beside my study window.

I easily identified a black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo, two red-eyed vireos and a black-capped chickadee. But one bird stumped me. It turned out to be a first fall female chestnut-sided warbler, according to my Peterson bird guide, what he once called one of the “confusing fall warblers,” those that no longer sport the bright colors of spring. They are mostly the males but also include females and the young of the year.

In addition, with no need to attract mates, most male songbirds no longer sing which makes identifying them even more challenging. An exception is the common yellowthroat that is still singing his distinctive “witchedy, witchedy” song in mid-September. He also retains his black mask but neither the olive-brown female nor their young—all with yellow throats and breasts—have masks.

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall (Photo by Ryan Mandelbaum on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I’m not a keen birder, like two of my sons, so I am content to leave the sorting of the puzzling birds to them. Still, I appreciate yellow-rumped warblers that visit our First Field in flocks. They may be mostly brown and white in fall but both sexes and the immatures always sport bright yellow rumps.

Ovenbirds too remain the same, looking much like thrushes except for the orange patch lined in black atop their heads. In September the adult birds have left for their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America or the West Indies, and their offspring have to manage on their own. They are much bolder than their parents and continue walking on the woods floor when I encounter them.

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One beautiful September day I sat inside our three-acre deer exclosure on Turtle Bench watching chipmunks, including one that had a hole at the base of a witch hazel tree a couple feet from the bench. But first one young ovenbird, followed by a second one, walked past and poked on and under the leaves searching for food. The first one ranged back and forth and then wandered off but the second ovenbird stayed near the bench probing at dead leaves. The youngster leaped up several times to snatch insects from a red oak seedling, but eventually it also wandered away. And all the while numerous chipmunks chased and called, ignoring me just as the ovenbirds had.

I’m never happier than when I can watch wildlife unaware of or uncaring of my presence. The easiest mammals to watch on our mountain are porcupines. One September morning I was almost to the top of our First Field Trail when I spotted a large, probably male, porcupine heading my way. I moved to the side of the mossy trail as he stumped past. Then I decided to follow him.

He sniffed at ferns as he passed them and clambered over or under fallen trees. He seemed bent on moving rapidly straight into the upper end of the exclosure fence. Since I was several hundred feet from one of the three gates into the exclosure, I paralleled him on the trail outside.

Occasionally, he stopped and sniffed but kept walking fast. He reached the Turtle Bench area where I had been sitting only moments before. I carefully opened the gate and eased my way into the exclosure. He sniffed around the base of our 1812 red oak tree and then headed directly toward me. I moved aside as quietly as I could, but the dried leaves crunched beneath my feet and he was alerted. He looked up, sniffed in my direction, and I could hear the clattering of his teeth as he fanned his quill-filled tail. Still, I didn’t move and he made several attempts to come toward me, clearly wanting to go through the gate area and back to the First Field Trail. Finally, he gave up, turned, and walked down through the middle of the exclosure.

A porcupine on the forest floor

A porcupine on the forest floor (Photo by Steven Kersting on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I let him get ahead of me before quietly following. He circled a few trees sniffing and then sniffed and reared up on his hind legs like a woodchuck. Again he started toward me, but then turned and disappeared into a large area of horse balm and spotted touch-me-nots and flushed a young ovenbird. I assumed the porcupine either hid there until I left or went out through the fence.

Even though he knew something—a possible threat—was nearby, he didn’t climb a tree to escape as porcupines usually do. At 20 feet away, I had heard his warning teeth clacking. He seemed to have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but he showed no interest in food like a porcupine I had watched in the summer carefully picking and eating Pennsylvania smartweed from a large patch of stiltgrass.

I decided he might have been tracking a pre-estrous female. According to Uldis Roze, in his book The North American Porcupine, mid-September to mid-October is the mating time for porcupines, and males begin by following odor plumes sent out by pre-estrous females. Since females are only in heat 8-to-12 hours a year, males like to be on site several days in advance, guarding a female by climbing into her tree and waiting on a lower branch, sniffing the air or her branch to see if she is ready to accept him. The males often wait several days and sometimes compete with other males for her acceptance. The porcupine I followed did rub his head at the base of several large trees leaving his own scent I assumed, although Roze didn’t mention this action in his book.

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod (Photo by Rachel Laubhan / USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once I lost sight of the porcupine, I walked over to our 37-acre First Field, which was covered with goldenrod and asters. Dozens of monarch butterflies nectared on the wildflowers along with pearl crescents, smaller butterflies than the monarchs but also colored orange and brown. Unlike the monarch caterpillars, which fed on our common milkweed leaves in mid-summer, the pearl crescents’ food plants are asters.

We have several aster species in our woods as well as in the field. Aster means “star,” hence the words “astronomy” and “astronaut.” In September the Ojibwa Indians smoked asters in their pipes to attract deer and other game. I’m not sure how that worked, but I suppose archery hunters could try it!

Asters, with 55 species in the northeast and goldenrod with 50 are true native wildflowers. The Chippewas called tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), the last of the five species to bloom in our field, “squirrel tail” because they grow so tall.

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod (Photo by BBureau on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Our field of gold draws other migrating butterflies in addition to monarchs. All three are in the genus Vanessa. Most notable are red admirals, which are black with orange and white markings and migrate south for the winter. So too do the orange, black and white, painted and American ladies, all of which also nectar on the goldenrod and asters.

Green darner dragonflies hawk insects above the field on their way south. Sometimes near dusk I have counted as many as 50 hunting on our barn bank.

September is the last month to find blooming wildflowers. At the base of First Field is a wet area that is excellent for turtleheads. Their genus name Chelone is Greek for “tortoise” because their pink and white flowers look like the heads of turtles. Orange and black Baltimore checkerspot butterflies lay their eggs only on turtlehead leaves+, and those butterflies are usually not found more than 10 yards from a patch of turtleheads, as I’ve discovered. The flowers are pollinated by large bees strong enough to push their way into the turtleheads’ one-to-two-inch-long flower tubes to obtain nectar at the bases of the flowers.

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed (Photo in memoriam: Steve Burt on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The spotted jewelweeds, also known as touch-me-nots, in the wetland section of our exclosure, have orange-spotted, cornucopia-shaped flowers designed to be pollinated solely by hummingbirds. Their long bills pick up pollen grains from inside the top front of one flower and drop them on the inside top of the next flower when they probe for the nectar. I spend hours there watching as ruby-throated hummingbirds zip from one jewelweed to another. I have also seen bees stealing nectar from jewelweed by biting through the backs of these flowers instead of trying to push their way through the blossoms.

Near the end of September, most of the wildflowers are fading, but by then the witch hazel and black birch understory have turned golden and the black gum trees are red, gold, orange, or pink, giving those of us who hike or hunt in the September woods a special early showing of autumn color that almost makes up for the loss of wildflowers and migrating songbirds, butterflies and dragonflies.

 

Losses and Gains

Last August, near the end of the month, it was finally clear, cool, and free of the bothersome mosquitoes and gnats that make hiking in the hot, humid summer unpleasant. Still, I had persevered most days when it wasn’t storming.

Japanese barberry

Japanese barberry (Photo by Virginia State Parks in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On this August day, I chose to walk along Ten Springs Trail. That trail is on the edge of the 112 acres we purchased after it was badly logged back in 1991. On one side of the trail is our uncut forest, access road, Plummer’s Hollow stream and Laurel Ridge. On the other side on Sapsucker Ridge is the land that was logged and is now full of invasive shrubs and vines, most notably Japanese barberry, privet, multiflora rose, mile-a-minute, and Japanese stiltgrass.

I had thought the trail, which is one of the old logging roads, was wide enough to keep the invasives from crossing into the forest, but near a wetland on the logged side, I discovered that mile-a-minute had reached and crossed the trail, heading downslope into the forest. It and Japanese stiltgrass blanketed some areas, and the stiltgrass was spreading even in the deepest, darkest part of the deciduous forest. There was nothing to stop it; no native shrubs and saplings to keep it out. No jewelweed to smother it such as it does in the wetland inside our deer exclosure.

Multiflora rose

Multiflora rose (Photo by Penn State in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Eventually, I reached Turkey Bench and was saddened to see that the large red oak next to the bench had split near its base and fallen during one of the recent storms, creating another large opening in the forest that the invasives will rush to fill, if not stiltgrass or mile-a-minute, then Japanese barberry, privet and/or multiflora rose.

It seems as if much of what I record on my walks are losses, especially in this part of our property. Maybe losses are all I should expect now that I’m 80. Old age, I’m learning, is a time when you lose more and more and must be content with less and less. Still, I am grateful to be alive and reasonably able on this, my 57th wedding anniversary. And to sit on the bench and be serenaded by a pair of red-eyed vireos as they engage in countersinging, the second singer repeating each phrase exactly as the first chorister sings it.

But most of the songbirds that had filled the forest with birdsong from April until the end of July were silent. Already many migratory species were on their way south to the tropics for the fall and winter.

Blackhaw

Blackhaw (Photo by Katja Schulz in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Eventually, I continued on Ten Springs Trail and found a couple native shrubs—a red-berried elder on the steep forest bank and a smooth blackhaw hidden behind a tree on the logged side. I passed the steam trickling down Bench Blind Hollow and then walked uphill and down, flipping off branches from several storms since I hadn’t been on that section of the trail all summer.

At last I reached Ten Springs Extension. It enters an uncut hollow and forest by a footpath built by our hunters 25 years ago. That path proved to be more of a challenge than I expected. The entrance was smothered in stiltgrass and was on a slant. I ended up carefully crawling through a small section of it.

The stone steps dug into the steep slope that leads to a streamlet were mostly gone so I eased my way down with the help of the stick I had used earlier to flip the branches off Ten Springs Trail.

Finally I crossed the stream bed and breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon, as it turned out. The trail the hunters had dug into the mountainside had eroded badly from the storms. Then as I inched my way along, I found myself blocked by an enormous red oak tree that had fallen recently. I crawled under the tree and then turned where the trail doubled back. There I was stopped by an even larger oak tree across the trail. I had to push my way through the upper half of the tree that had broken off downslope and then try to beat my way back up to the trail since it was totally covered with portions of the tree for several yards. To my relief I found and followed a faint deer track that led me back to the trail and down to the road.

I decided then that that would be the last time I would take Ten Springs Extension and that I would suggest we close the foot path. Closing it would protect the deep forest from invasives. Already one sunny spot had a circle of stiltgrass. And once the autumn leaves fell, the trail would be even more slippery and hazardous.

American beeches

American beeches near the road in the hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

I still had a mile to walk up our road, but this is my favorite part of our property. The steep road bank is covered with several dozen wildflower and native shrub species and the surrounding forest has many native trees such as basswood, cucumber magnolia, American beeches, and several oak species. At the end of August horsebalm, white wood asters, and blue-stemmed goldenrod were blooming. Spikenard, Indian cucumber-root, yellow mandarin, and jack-in-the-pulpit were fruiting. Many wild hydrangeas, red-berried elders and maple leaf viburnum shrubs grew in beds of several fern and clubmoss species. I also found healthy patches of partridgeberry in fruit.

Unfortunately, the “partridge” for which they are named—the ruffed grouse—is suffering from West Nile virus, and we have only found a couple drumming on our property in the last couple years instead of the ones that used to display on our road and flush with chicks at the edges of our forest and First Field.

Mountain laurel with brown leaf spots in Plummer’s Hollow

Mountain laurel with brown leaf spots in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

Our hemlock trees that line the darkest part of our road have been affected by hemlock woolly adelgids but most, while thinning, are still holding on. Over half of our mountain laurel, that once blanketed Laurel Ridge, have died of a leaf fungus or blight, most likely Diaporthe kalmiae or possibly, according to a paper I can’t read in Japanese, Cercospora kalmiae, also called brown leaf spot. The mountain laurel used to provide excellent cover for wildlife, and wood thrushes and yellow-billed cuckoos favored it for nest-building. Unlike rhododendron and other native shrubs white-tailed deer eat, they only eat mountain laurel when they are starving. But they too used the mountain laurel for cover and shade.

Farther up the road I stopped to look at a large basswood tree stripped of its bark. It had fallen in a fierce storm earlier in the month and brought down a large red maple with it. Near the forks, a red oak 26 inches in diameter had come down in the same storm. But as I moved closer to look at the tree I spotted one of the loveliest wetland-loving wildflowers of August and September—a turtlehead.

And so the tree loss continued even as I approached our home and saw the immense black locust that had toppled in the storm, barely missing our house. I heard it crack while sitting in our sunroom and watched it fall.

Wood frog eggs

Wood frog eggs (Photo by Brad Carlson in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The increased winds and rains in Pennsylvania have turned our vernal pond into a permanent pond atop the oak and wild black cherry forest of Sapsucker Ridge. Not only are there now hundreds of wood frogs returning to it and two smaller ponds there each spring to court and lay masses of eggs, but the week before, as I approached the pond, I spotted a green frog, its large, bulbous eyes rimmed in orange and white, dark brown head and long nose, watching me from the algae-covered water.

Still, we’ve lost so much over the nearly 50 years we’ve lived here. Our last forest-dwelling American elm succumbed four years ago to the so-called “Dutch” elm disease which, in reality, came from an Asian fungus Ceratocystis ulmi. The elms’ seeds were favored by ruffed grouse, wood ducks, squirrels and opossums and every spring a porcupine nibbled on our elm’s buds and flowers.

Now most of our ash trees are dead or dying from still another pest from northeast Asia, the emerald ash borer Agrilus planipennis that was first discovered in Michigan near Detroit in the summer of 2002. Again, ashes also produced seeds that wildlife ate.

American bittersweet at the edge of First Field

American bittersweet at the edge of First Field (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

And because of our wet, sometimes too cold springs, for the second year in a row, our acorn crop was sparse. Even the scrub oaks on the powerline right-of-way had no acorns. Our wild grapes and wild black cherries again had no fruit. Even our blackberry crop was sparse.

On the other hand, our American bittersweet draped itself over four tall trees at the edge of First Field and was covered with orange berries, and our “pokeweed forest” above the spruce grove was laden with fruit. But it was still not enough to entice our fruit-loving birds to over winter. I can only hope for better wildlife crops this year.

 

 

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.