Audubon’s Pewee

It’s a day in late May and already the nests of our eastern phoebes are bursting with nestlings preparing to fledge. Over the 47 years we have lived on our mountain, our buildings have hosted many eastern phoebe nests.

A phoebe in Plummer’s Hollow

A phoebe in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

Some buildings, such as the guesthouse portico and the old outhouse, contained nests for several decades, but the outhouse finally collapsed and the phoebes deserted the guesthouse portico after years of successful fledgings. They continue to use either the outside or inside of the small springhouse, while the barn overhang has become a more recent popular nesting place.

Still, there has never been a year when phoebes have not used the top of a veranda column and one of the garage beams to raise families, even though we tried to discourage the veranda column nest sites when we had it repaired and painted by blocking in the flattened tops of the columns. Undeterred, phoebes molded their nests around the obstructions.

Eastern phoebes have been building their nests on human homes and outbuildings for centuries and were known in the 19th century as “barn pewees” as well as “bridge pewees” because they also favor the undersides of bridges. Before the advent of human dwellings and even today, they will build nests in natural rock outcroppings. All such choices protect their nestlings from the weather and often predators as well.

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) (Photo by Soerfm in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Members of the Tyrant Flycatcher family, eastern phoebes follow the first flush of insects north from their winter homes in the southern United States, Texas, and Mexico, often arriving in Pennsylvania in early March and leaving in late October. Sometimes they must survive late spring snow storms and are able to subsist on small fruits instead of insects until the weather improves.

These gray-brown birds with off-white throats and bellies are the first songbirds to arrive on our mountain around March 15. When I hear the raspy “fee-bee” of a male phoebe and see this tail-flicking flycatcher on a wire near the barn catching insects from the sunny side of the building, I know that spring is here.

In scientific circles, eastern phoebes are known as “suboscine” birds because their songs are innate instead of learned like those of “oscine” birds such as wood thrushes. But lately bioacoustic studies of their songs detected variations among male song characteristics that are not obvious to our ears but are to those of the birds.

John James Audubon’s house at Mill Grove

John James Audubon’s house at Mill Grove (Photo by Dennis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Eastern phoebes should be credited with first arousing bird artist John James Audubon’s interest in birds. When he was a youth, he lived at Mill Grove on the Perkiomen Creek in Chester County. Early in the spring of 1804, he found the empty nest of the bird he called “Pewee” or “Pewit flycatchier,” fastened to a rock in a cave on his property.

When the cave phoebes returned, he spent many hours watching them as they went about their phoebe business. “Before a week had elapsed,” he wrote in his Ornithological Biography, “the Pewees and myself were quite on terms of intimacy.”

Beginning on the tenth of April, he watched them repair their old nest as “they brought fresh materials, lined the nest anew, and made it warm by adding a few soft feathers of the Common Goose which were strewn along the edge of the creek water.”

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest (Photo by jeffreyw on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Even today, eastern phoebes often refurbish old nests instead of building new ones, since building a new nest takes five to 14 days and refurbishing an old one four days or less. One recent study found that new nest builders finished their first clutches later, were less likely to raise a second family, and lost their nesting attempts more often because of fallen nest structures, all of which led to “lower seasonal reproductive effort,” the scientists concluded.

Audubon’s close observations of phoebes’ family life reminded me of the time I spent watching a guesthouse portico family back in the early 1980s. The female refurbished an old nest and she then laid five white eggs.

The Guest House portico where I watched a phoebe nest; the arrow points to the location of a bat which also chose to nest under the roof another time

The Guest House portico where I watched a phoebe nest; the arrow points to the location of a bat which also chose to hide under the roof another time (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr

I sat inside the front door of the guesthouse and watched the family through the portico window, but I also climbed up on a chair outside and held a mirror above the nest to check the eggs. The female is the sole incubator, even sleeping in the nest overnight. It takes 16 days until the eggs hatch, and most eggs in a single nest, including the ones I watched, hatch within 24 hours.

Audubon’s eggs hatched on the thirteenth day and in his nest of six eggs one did not hatch just as in the nest of five that I watched one never hatched. In both cases a parent removed the egg. Audubon opened the rejected egg and “found the embryo of a bird partly dried up, with its vertebrae attached to the shell…”

Since the hatchlings are helpless, almost naked, and in need of nearly constant brooding, I waited until they were 11 days old, fully feathered, and active before spending an hour every day watching the nest and recording the number of feedings. For four days they averaged 25 feedings, but when they reached 16 days of age, the feedings diminished to 15 an hour. A recent study showed that parents adjust their feeding rates according to the begging rates of their nestlings.

By then the nestlings were flexing their wings or standing on the edge of the nest and beating them. When they were 17 days old, the female parent appeared with nesting materials in her beak and, despite screams of hunger from the nestlings, proceeded to build a second nest beside the first one, yanking nesting materials from the side and top of the first nest as the youngsters watched.

While she worked on construction, the male fed the nestlings. But sometimes when they begged, she tried to push construction materials down their throats which they promptly spat out. They even jumped back and forth between the old and new nests but settled into the old nest by nightfall. The following morning, at 9:30 a.m., they all fledged at once. Usually though phoebes fledge one at a time over an hour or so as the veranda column nestlings do.

Audubon’s painting of the eastern phoebe, the “pewit flycatcher” as he called it

Audubon’s painting of the eastern phoebe, the “pewit flycatcher” as he called it (Image in the Wikimedia, in the public domain)

While I kept a “hands off” approach to the young, Audubon spent his time gaining the trust of both parents and nestlings so that they tolerated the light silver thread he fastened to the leg of each nestling before they fledged. This was the first time that birds had been banded in North America.

His banding proved the following year that phoebes return to their same nesting site and even nest, writing, “When the Pewees returned to Pennsylvania I had the satisfaction of observing them again, in and about the cave. There again in the very same nest two broods were raised…Several of these birds which I caught on the nest had the little banding ring on the leg…”

He assumed many of the pairs he observed, not only in the cave, but on farm buildings and his mill nearby remained faithful during one breeding season and from year to year. Recently, two studies found that most pairs were both socially and genetically monogamous within a breeding season. In one case in Indiana only 15 of 87 families had extra-pair young in at least one brood, most commonly the second brood.

Those researchers followed up with a second study in which they captured and color-banded 198 males and 237 females, studied them for three seasons, and discovered that they were faithful to their territories, nest sites, and mates within and between years with 85.5% of males and 92% of females mating with the same mate during multiple breeding attempts. But mates were replaced following their disappearance and probable deaths.

A study of infanticide in Kentucky by an unrelated male phoebe even while the female continued feeding her nestlings, resulted in the death of all the nestlings. The researchers hypothesized that the male parent of the nestlings had died or disappeared and that it was a way for a non-breeding male to obtain a mate and start his own family.

A phoebe nest with a brown-headed cowbird egg

A phoebe nest with a brown-headed cowbird egg (Photo by Galawebdesign in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A greater threat to breeding phoebes has been repeated brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds. I’ve occasionally observed cowbird parasitism in our nests over the years, but never in the veranda column nests. A study of cowbird parasitism in New York State concluded that even over generations of birds, cowbirds prefer particular eastern phoebe sites, such as our old outhouse.

Other threats to phoebe eggs and nestlings are black rat snakes, raccoons, coyotes, blue jays, American crows, chipmunks, and house wrens, but not one of those predators has climbed or flown into the veranda column nests.

Overall, phoebes are incredibly successful throughout their range including Pennsylvania where they live everywhere except for the urban cores of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Although our songbird population has dwindled since the 1970s, it is comforting to know that eastern phoebes continue to thrive and are able to quickly adapt manmade structures for their own purposes.

 

Chasing Waterfowl

Early April is the time to see migrating waterfowl on every pond, lake, and river in our state, and last spring was no exception. On a warm, breezy, April day, led by our birder son, Mark, my husband Bruce and I took an all-day tour in search of ducks, geese, and other assorted waterfowl. Mark had spent much of his spare time exploring the best places to bird in Bald Eagle Valley and beyond and wanted to share them with us.

The Julian Wetlands with the Bald Eagle Mountain in the background

The Julian Wetlands with the Bald Eagle Mountain in the background (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Our first stop was the Julian Wetlands, renamed the Tom Ridge and Julian Wetlands by the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation. This privately funded organization, located in State College, was founded in 2004 to promote wildlife conservation and education in Pennsylvania and is committed to maintaining habitat for our 480 species of birds and mammals as well as our fisheries according to their website.

In 2002 the WHM Group, Inc., in State College had been hired by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to construct the Julian Wetlands on both sides of Alternate Route 220 as mitigation for the environmental impacts caused by the building of Interstate 99 on Bald Eagle Mountain. The scientists working for the WHM Group chose the location based on existing water sources, both from the Allegheny Plateau run-off on the Julian Wetlands side and Bald Eagle Creek saturation feeds along the riparian wetland on the south side of the highway. These waters enabled them to construct wetlands without using large machines.

The WHM Group, Inc., gave the property to the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation in 2004. That was when the Foundation dedicated the property to Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor, prominent conservationist, and honorary board member, hence its name change. The property consists of 135 acres—55 acres of man-made wetlands, 15 acres of riparian wetlands along Bald Eagle Creek, and 65 acres of upland forest and meadows.

Naturalists, particularly birders, have been documenting wildlife species there since it was constructed. Already more than 180 bird species have been seen on the property. The Foundation plans to build a mile-long, accessible, mostly boardwalk trail around the 55-acre wetland, birding blinds, and an education pavilion with observation platforms. But on the day of our visit, we found that the rudimentary wetland trail was overgrown and wet. Another birder we met told us that getting around on it was practically impossible so we birded along the country side road where we had parked our car.

A female redhead

A female redhead (Photo by Dick Daniels on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Many newly-arrived tree swallows swooped over the water, a pair of Canada geese called, a swamp sparrow emerged from the underbrush, and those signature spring birds of wetlands, the red-winged blackbirds, sang their “Okalees.” We also saw a pair of eastern bluebirds, a northern mockingbird, and several song sparrows. But the only migrating waterfowl we spied was a brown female redhead, half-hidden by the dried plants in front of the water.

The next mitigated wetland we visited, the Curtin Wetland, is a mile north of the Milesburg Exit for Interstate 80. Tucked between Pa. Route 550 on one side and Bald Eagle Creek on the other, this wetland had been constructed about 30 years ago, is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, and managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

We carefully picked our way over a muddy trail beside a field of teasel. In the middle of it an American kestrel nest box hosted a pair of the small, handsome raptors. Aggressive tree swallows occupied other nest boxes and repeatedly dove near our heads.

With Mark and our spotting scope

With Mark and our spotting scope (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Finally, we reached the dike area and climbed up to an overlook of the extensive pond, where we set up our scope. The water teemed with waterfowl, and after much staring through binoculars and scope we added 10 more waterfowl species to our list. Close in was a flock of ubiquitous mallards, the handsome, green-headed males riding herd on the brown females.

Next I looked up when I heard and then saw the beautiful, multi-colored male American wood duck and the brownish gray female with her white eye patch flying overhead. Both mallards and wood ducks are dabbling ducks because they feed by “dabbling” with their bills to pick up material from the surface of the water or by upending their bodies, heads under the water and tails in the air. Mallards are the most widespread and abundant resident duck species in Pennsylvania, closely followed by American wood ducks.

But the gray-bodied male and brown female gadwall ducks we spotted are dabbling ducks that are migrants on their way north and west of the commonwealth. According to The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, the last gadwalls that bred in the state were recorded in 1964 in Conneaut Marsh near the border with Ohio.

A pair of blue-winged teal

A pair of blue-winged teal (Photo by Eric Ellingson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Blue-winged and green-winged teal are also dabbling ducks and flocks of both species swam in the pond. The white facial crescent and blue patch on his forewing are the male blue-winged teal’s most identifying characteristics on a mostly brown body. The slightly smaller green-winged teal male is known by his green head patch on a chestnut brown head and his mostly gray body. Females of both species are primarily brown.

Blue-winged teal breed in temporary wetlands surrounded by healthy grasslands while green-winged teal prefer dense emergent marshes and shrubby swamps. Both species are still listed as breeding birds in Pennsylvania but green-winged teal have always been rare because most breed farther north and west of us. On the other hand, blue-winged teal used to be more common breeders here but their numbers fell between the first (1983-89) and second (2004-2009) atlasing periods. However, on that day at the Curtin Wetlands, green-winged teal repeatedly flew in tight flocks overhead and blue-winged teal remained feeding on the water.

Farther out in the pond were several diving ducks that forage by diving under water. Most abundant were the male and female ring-necked ducks, noticeable for the white ring near the tips of the bills of both sexes. Still, they are named for the maroon band around the male’s neck that is almost impossible to see under the best light conditions. Ring-necked ducks nest in the boreal belt throughout Canada.

A female greater scaup at the Norristown/Bridgeport Dam, Montgomery County, PA

A female greater scaup at the Norristown/Bridgeport Dam, Montgomery County, PA (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A few lesser and greater scaup, look-alike bay ducks, also headed for boreal Canada, and a lone female hooded merganser rounded out our duck list, the latter an uncommon breeder in Pennsylvania, nesting in tree cavities beside lakes and wetlands, especially beaver impoundments.

We also spotted a flock of American coots, members of the rail family that pump their heads back and forth as they swim. Mostly black and slate gray with bright white bills, they both dabble and dive. They too are rare breeders in Pennsylvania because we lack large freshwater marshes interspersed with open water which is their preferred habitat.

Our final waterfowl there was a handsome, male horned grebe, his golden plumed head standing out from his rusty brown neck and body. He too was headed northwest to boreal lakes in western Canada and Alaska.

The Bullit Run Access

The Bullit Run Access (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Bald Eagle State Park and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Foster Joseph Sayers Dam were our last destinations for the day. We had visited the larger fields and lake of Bald Eagle State Park, but Mark had sought out the smaller access areas beginning with the Bullit Run Access where we saw a small flock of common mergansers, followed by the Sunken Run Overlook that yielded two common loons and seven buffleheads.

Sometimes I hear a common loon call as it flies over our mountain home during migration so I was pleased to see them in their dapper black and white breeding plumage. They nest on large lakes throughout the boreal forest and tundra and were last seen nesting in Pennsylvania at the Pocono Lake in Monroe County in 1946.

Buffleheads are also small diving ducks that are studies in black and white. The adult male has a large, puffy, black head with a prominent white patch on it along with a black back and white sides. They were on route to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.

A red-breasted merganser

A red-breasted merganser (Photo by Rich Engelbrecht on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We ended our day near the dam breast. With a sighting there of red-breasted mergansers, we had seen all the merganser species.  Known for the females being as distinctly plumaged as the males, they are brown-crested with grayish bodies, while the males are variations of black, white, and brown. All are diving ducks. The medium-sized red-breasted merganser breeds in northern Alaska and Canada next to lakes and rivers in the boreal forest and tundra. The common merganser is the largest and the hooded the smallest. All have long, spike-like bills and saw-edged mandibles.

We also added pied-billed grebe to our list. Like the horned grebe, it has toes that are lobed rather than webbed and tiny tails. The male has a short, black-banded bill that gives it its name. It nests on ponds and lakes, even in Pennsylvania, with emergent vegetation. As species 18 it ended our productive day of chasing waterfowl.

 

Black Squirrels

“Mom, there’s a black squirrel in the flat area.”

A black gray squirrel

A black gray squirrel (Photo by Robert Taylor on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

It was 5:30 p.m. on a balmy day in early March and my son Dave and I were fixing dinner in the kitchen.

I rushed to the window, grabbed my binoculars, and called my husband Bruce to come and see the unusual eastern gray squirrel.

In the meantime, the squirrel had climbed up the back slope and we thought it would come to our bird feeder area below our porch steps. Instead, it veered over to the far edge of my backyard herb garden beside the feeders and ran off. A few minutes later Bruce spotted it below the slope near our old springhouse before it disappeared.

During our 46 years on our mountain we had never seen a black gray squirrel, although I knew there was a population on the Penn State Altoona campus at the base of the Allegheny Front. And later, our caretaker Troy told us he had never seen any black squirrels on our Brush Mountain, the westernmost ridge in the Ridge-and-Valley Province, but he added that there was a population in a small village at the base of our mountain on the Logan Valley side.

The next time I saw the black squirrel, spring had officially arrived even though it was 17 degrees and the ground had frozen hard again. I stepped outside in the early morning and glimpsed the squirrel at the bottom of a backyard black walnut tree. Spotting me, it ran downslope to the flat area and up into the woods on Laurel Ridge.

On April 3, I again glimpsed the black squirrel in the flat area at 7:30 a.m. A gray squirrel, one of the army of 10 raiding our feeders every day, chased it back up into the woods.

Two days later, after returning from my morning walk, I stopped to admire the blooming hyacinths and daffodils in our backyard. That’s when I noticed the black squirrel crossing the flat area. I watched it through my binoculars while it searched for food beneath the leaf cover at the edge of the woods, and paused a couple times to scratch itself.

A gray squirrel approached a black squirrel

A gray squirrel approached a black squirrel (Photo by Eyesplash on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once a gray squirrel approached but did not chase it. Nevertheless, the black squirrel retreated but continued foraging. Next it climbed on to fallen trees, using them as runways. Once it sat up on its hindquarters and I saw that it had an orange underbelly. Then it continued slowly on its trek over to the springhouse and wetland where I lost sight of it among the cattails.

Although I continued looking for it throughout the following months, I never saw it again. I figured that a predator had caught it or that it had been visiting and had moved on. But last November one of our archery hunters saw it still living nearby.

Our black squirrel is one of three possible color phases of the eastern gray squirrel.  In Pennsylvania most eastern gray squirrels are gray, but there are also brown-black gray squirrels (our “black” squirrel) and jet black gray squirrels. Canadian researchers, writing in the Journal of Heredity in 2009, studied the color variations in the coat of the eastern gray squirrel by inspecting the hair from all three types under the microscope and found that the eastern gray squirrel “had 6 distinct hair types, compared with 4 from the brown-black and only 1 from the jet black.”

An example of a squirrel with a grizzled coat

An example of a squirrel with a grizzled coat (Photo by Eugenia Vlasova on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

“These different hair types,” they wrote, “give the gray an overall grizzled appearance with a white underbelly, the brown-black an overall dark brown appearance with an orange underbelly, and the jet black a uniform black appearance.”

Or, in the words of Dr. Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, “The genetic basis of this color phase was researched and determined to be a simple dominant/recessive interaction. Black color is dominant, gray is homozygous recessive, and it sounds like you have a heterozygous individual.”

A brown-black squirrel on the Penn State Altoona campus

A brown-black squirrel on the Penn State Altoona campus (Photo by Dr. Laura Palmer, used with permission)

Mahan adds that the brown/black squirrels have been on the campus at least since 1999 when she began teaching there. She says that, “It is not that they ‘arrived’ there. It is just that the allele [one of a group of genes that occur alternately at a place] for the black color is present in that population. It seems that most of the ‘black’ squirrels are heterozygous for the trait so, if you look at them in bright sunlight, they appear dark dark brown. It seems on our campus there are an equal number of gray and black squirrels.”

Scientific descriptions aside, black gray squirrels are more common farther north while gray squirrels dominate southern areas in the eastern United States and Canada.

Some researchers believe that before Europeans arrived in North America, black gray squirrels were predominant throughout eastern North America because forests were old and thick and provided better cover for that color phase. But once the forests were cut, they hypothesize, gray squirrels became the dominant type throughout their range.

A black gray squirrel in Canada

A black gray squirrel in Canada (Photo by DaPuglet on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Another, earlier study in Canada in 1978, where black gray squirrels dominate, found that they had “significantly lower heat loss” than gray squirrels during the winter which they thought explained why black gray squirrels were common where winters were colder and there was a constant snow cover despite the fact that a black coat would not provide camouflage for them in a white world.

Native black gray squirrels live in Ontario and Quebec and northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. But there have been so many releases of these squirrels both in the United States and England, usually courtesy of Ontario, that it is difficult to sort the naturally occurring from the released ones.

In Britain they were released at the end of the 19th century and 18 from Canada arrived at the National Zoo during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. Canada also sent 10 to Kent, Ohio in 1961.

The home of the black squirrels, Marysville, Kansas

The home of the black squirrels, Marysville, Kansas (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Strangest of all is the so-called “Home of the Black Squirrels” out in the plains in Marysville, Kansas. Supposedly the squirrels escaped from a traveling circus or maybe a gypsy encampment in the late 1920s. Marysville even holds an annual Black Squirrel Celebration.

The black squirrels in Washington, D.C. have spread over the city, and they’ve done the same in other towns and cities where they were released. Apparently, they are safer from their predators, which are primarily birds of prey. And squirrel hunters, eager to bag a black gray squirrel, cannot shoot them in such places.

I checked a couple online sources regarding black gray squirrels in Pennsylvania and compiled a list of cities and towns where black squirrels live such as Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, the Haverford College campus, which has so many that they’ve adopted Black Squirrels as their sports mascot, and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh.

A.D. Plummer, who says he hunts and fishes every day in central Pennsylvania, according to the Answers section of the Field and Stream website, claimed he had never seen a black squirrel there until 2009 when he saw two in two places 30 miles apart.

A brown-black squirrel photographed in Goddard Park, Chester County, PA

A brown-black squirrel photographed in Goddard Park, Chester County, PA (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

This provoked several more comments over the next few years. S. Testy, who lives in Enola, Cumberland County, also in central Pennsylvania, wrote in 2009, “There’s a pak of black squirrels that live on Valley Road and North Enola Drive…I’ve seen several out at one time.”

M.J. Frazier in 2012 reported from western Pennsylvania that a small colony nested in their neighborhood and liked bird seeds but stayed away from the gray squirrels.

“The squirrels are solid black and look very kinetic as they move about,” Frazier reported. “They will not come to the feeder close to the house [which probably explains why ‘our’ black squirrel ignored our feeders], but [to] one in the yard about 30 yards away which is stocked with black oil sunflower seeds.”

Rudy Glove, writing in 2015, added “Black squirrels everywhere now.’

Well, not quite everywhere. On the HuntingPA.com website in answer to a hunter’s question about where he can find black squirrels, it looks as if the largest numbers still live in the wild across the northern tier of the commonwealth.

One hunter found black squirrels scattered in five different locations over four counties—Lycoming, Clinton, Potter and Tioga.

Another reported three blacks to one gray in Cook Forest, Clarion County, adding that one day he counted five different black squirrels.

Several were seen near Dubois in Clearfield County and a couple hunters claimed they were common near Kinzua Dam in the Allegheny National Forest. Two hunters mentioned Pike County in northeastern Pennsylvania, and another Brookville in Jefferson County near Treasure Lake.

Whether all these squirrels were coal black, brown-black, or both is not clear except for those reported by M.J. Frazier, but S. Testy does question articles that say only one gray squirrel in 10,000 is black and suspects, at least here in Pennsylvania, that that is a low estimate.

 

Weird Winter

The weird winter of 2017 had thaws longer and warmer than freezes. Our white nights of bright moonlight shining on snow were scarce. It was an old person’s winter lacking the usual ice and snow that often makes for hazardous walking. Since I am an old person, I should have been grateful but I wasn’t because rain and above average temperatures most of January brought out the ticks.

An eastern towhee taken in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania

An eastern towhee taken in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Near the end of January, when the thermometer fell below freezing for a few days, a male eastern towhee appeared in our bird feeding area and stayed for a short while. Never before had I seen a towhee at our feeders in winter.

Our feeder visitor used our old Christmas tree, which we had laid out below our back porch, as cover and he called “toe-hee” several times. His robust reddish-brown, black and white body was a striking contrast to the smaller, brown and gray birds feeding on the ground around him.

On the third day of his visit he sang his “drink your tea,” undoubtedly his swan song since that was the last time we saw him. Maybe he sensed the imminent six-inch snowstorm, but he should have waited until February because on the first of the month it warmed up to 48 degrees and most of the snow melted.

Once again we were back to a snow-less, beige, black, and brown forest with touches of evergreen. On Groundhog Day Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. I was dubious of his claim. By February 6 it smelled, looked and sounded like spring as pileated woodpeckers drummed and northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice sang.

Two chipmunks in Pennsylvania

Two chipmunks in Pennsylvania (Photo by Jim, the Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Two chipmunks joined the feeder birds in the morning and two more chased below the guesthouse porch, clearly in courtship mode, as the temperature rose to 56 degrees. I predicted an increase in chipmunk numbers for the year, not only because of the huge acorn crop the previous fall, but because the mild February would give them plenty of time to breed.

“Nature’s pruners” worked overtime as “March” winds ripped through a week of February days and nights, and fallen limbs and dead trees littered the trails. The winds were followed one night by an almost unprecedented February thunderstorm that began with claps of thunder and streaks of lightning and ended with pings of sleet on our bow window as the temperature dropped below freezing.

During the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), scheduled as a mid-winter count February 17 through 20, we had the best weather ever for that time of year. Unlike other years, when the trails were icy or deep in snow, the ground was open, and I was able to wander much farther than during previous GBBCs.

The first day of the GBBC, full of expectation, I hiked up a path-less section of Sapsucker Ridge, but except for distant woodpecker drumming, I neither saw nor heard any birds. Even the spruce grove was quiet.

A white-throated sparrow photographed during a Great Backyard Bird Count

A white-throated sparrow photographed during a Great Backyard Bird Count (Photo by Stephen Little on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

However, when I reached the Far Field, six dark-eyed juncos flushed from the side of Pennyroyal Trail. I listened to a pair of chickadees counter singing, heard a downy woodpecker drumming, and saw a couple white-throated sparrows lurking in the barberry shrubs at the far end of the Far Field.

From there I walked to the Second Thicket and heard a pileated woodpecker drumming. It seemed to be woodpecker-drumming weather, and the pileateds sounded like the drum roll of a marching band. I wondered how far pileated drumming carried, because beyond the Second Thicket halfway down another ridge, I heard another pileated, and on Coyote Bench still another. It was as if the whole mountain was a pileated band, drumming in an early spring.

By mid-afternoon it was 57 degrees, yet my bird species’ list was sparse despite the miles I had walked. Near our feeders and on them were more bird species than I’d seen on my entire hike.

The next day was even warmer, reaching 67 degrees, yet it felt strange. Even though it was as warm as late March, no spring birds had returned. All I heard or saw were pileateds on another long walk in another part of the mountain, an area full of brush that usually held small birds.

Two Canada geese flying overhead

Two Canada geese flying overhead (Photo by Craig Bennett on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On the third day of the GBBC, it was warm, overcast and breezy and two Canada geese croaked past over Sapsucker Ridge at 7:15 in the morning. They could have been part of the local flock way ahead of their usual 10:00 a.m. flyover or possibly early migrants lost from a larger flock.

As I started on my walk for the day, I paused to watch a pair of white-breasted nuthatches chase a downy woodpecker from a yard black walnut tree.

Then on I walked in Sunday’s silence and, at the entrance to Bird Count Trail, a tufted titmouse scolded, throwing its voice in every direction, starting quietly and getting progressively louder as a male downy woodpecker foraged quietly on a nearby tree.

A red-bellied woodpecker called from Greenbrier Trail followed by a pileated. Slowly I climbed up Dogwood Knoll to Sapsucker Ridge as the wind picked up. A pair of turkey vultures floated overhead—the first migrants of the season and three weeks earlier than usual.

A turkey vulture flying over Plummer’s Hollow

A turkey vulture flying over Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A red-tailed hawk flashed past, but it was probably our resident red-tail enjoying the wind. Then a third turkey vulture appeared, reminding me that the Winter Raptor Survey statewide recorded the highest number of turkey vultures ever, although we didn’t see any on our count in nearby Sinking Valley.

By afternoon, it was 62 degrees on the veranda, and Bruce and I sat there, soaking up the sun for a winter that might or might not return. Our resident chipmunk, which has its den hole at the far end of our veranda, approached my feet and then Bruce’s, sniffing his fur-lined slippers before running off. Maybe it was trying to figure out what kind of creature the fake fur was.

The weather was still beautiful, clear and warm the last day of the GBBC. I was hoping to see or hear birds, but I walked a totally silent, bird-less Ten Springs Trail and up a bird-less road. But chipmunks mate-chased throughout the forest.

Even our feeder birds had dwindled—six juncos instead of the usual 40 and no cardinals, goldfinches or blue jays, all of which had been there the previous days. Were they as flummoxed as I was over the “winter” weather or was the open ground providing more natural food for them?

A winter wren taken in February in Delaware

A winter wren taken in February in Delaware (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

All in all I counted 22 species, the lowest number ever despite the turkey vultures. Winter bird diversity continues to dwindle from GBBC to GBBC. Last winter I found no brown creepers, winter wrens, or golden-crowned kinglets, usually dependable GBBC species here.

Still the warm weather continued. The next day as I walked up First Field Trail, I noticed fresh turkey scat. When I started along the Far Field Road, the leader of a flock of wild turkeys saw me before I saw it. They rushed across the road and out of sight so quickly that I didn’t count them thoroughly, although there were at least 30, giving me species number 23 for the mountain but too late for the GBBC.

I sat on Alan’s Bench and watched as a chickadee extracted cone scales from a low-hanging Norway spruce bough with a cluster of cones at its tip. Then the chickadee landed on a nearby branch to extract the paired seeds from the scale. Silently it did this three times before calling “dee-dee-dee” and flying away. Observing bird behavior is always more rewarding to me than counting species.

Off and on I thought I heard tundra swans, but they must have been above the thin cloud cover. Still, I was eager to see those flying angels and early harbingers of spring. As I descended First Field, near the powerline right-of-way, I stood in the wind and counted 160 tundra swans heading northwest.

A mourning cloak in Plummer’s Hollow

A mourning cloak in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The unseasonable weather continued. On the 24th our son Dave reported the first mourning cloak butterfly on Sapsucker Ridge, a full month ahead of our earliest date. It was 78 degrees by mid-afternoon, and later we learned that 4000 temperature records had been broken for this date throughout northern North America.

The first fox sparrows arrived from the south on the 26th, en route to the north, and a pair of mourning doves billed and cooed for 20 minutes on the ground below the feeder.  The following day I watched them copulating on an ash tree limb.

Spring was definitely in the air. Punxsutawney Phil had called it very wrong, at least for February, and, as it turned out, for March as well.

It was indeed an old person’s winter, but whether it was an anomaly or a portent of winters to come remains to be seen.