Great Crested Flycatchers

On a lovely morning in late June, I watched a pair of great crested flycatchers calling back and forth. One was in our side yard and the other in our front yard.

A great crested flycatcher in Missouri

A great crested flycatcher in Missouri (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Then both of them landed on a black walnut tree beside our driveway and appeared to be interested in a deserted woodpecker hole. Still, it seemed a bit late for them to be seeking a nest hole unless their first nesting attempt was foiled by a predator. Eventually, they flew away, still calling their raucous “wheep, wheep.”

Flycatchers are not true songbirds but belong to a closely related line that have brains unable to imitate songs. They are born with genetically predetermined calls and voice boxes simpler than those of songbirds. Thus most of us hear only their “wheeps,” “rasps,” and a rapid series of “whits,” the latter reminiscent of a policeman’s whistle. A two-minute YouTube video shows a great crested flycatcher calling.

But W. John Smith and Anne Marie Smith studied the vocalizations of great crested flycatchers in southeastern Pennsylvania and discovered at least 12 different calls which related to their behavior during breeding and even on their wintering grounds in southern Mexico, Central America and northwestern South America. They found that the flycatchers were particularly adept at using their vocalizations to manage their social behavior. Mated pairs duetted and males defended their territories by vocalizing as they approached their shared territorial borders

Donald Kroodsma, who is an expert in birdsong, describes the dawn song of one great crested flycatcher male as “an emphatic ‘wheeee-up,’ followed by another, then a faint low, buzzy note, barely audible, the pattern repeating. I can hear how successive ‘wheeee-up’ songs are different, as he plays with duration, frequency, emphasis, tone quality, and more—like snowflakes, no two ever quite alike,” he writes in his book Listening to a Continent Sing.

A great crested flycatcher in Florida

A great crested flycatcher in Florida (Photo by Andrea Westmoreland in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

One of nine breeding flycatchers in Pennsylvania, most, such as the eastern phoebe, eastern wood pewee, Acadian and least flycatchers, are variations on gray and white, and some are most easily identified by their distinctive calls. However, great crested flycatchers are not only noisier than the others but showier with lemon-yellow bellies, gray heads, throats and upper breasts, and long, reddish-brown tails that glow in the sunlight. When excited they erect their crown feathers to form crests, hence their common name.

Unlike other tyrant flycatchers, so-called because they pursue and capture prey in flight, great crested flycatchers also glean insects from vegetation. In addition, they are the only cavity-nesting flycatchers in eastern North America.

A great crested flycatcher using a nest box

A great crested flycatcher using a nest box (Photo by vladeb on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Those cavities include natural openings in trees, abandoned woodpecker holes, hollow posts, and even nesting boxes, as well as more bizarre choices such as a cannon at Gettysburg National Park, an old wooden pump, stove pipe or open gutter pipe, old boxes or tin cans. But a recent study of great crested flycatchers’ nests in Florida found that the higher off the ground the nests were, the more likely they were to fledge young.

That study also reported that those flycatchers preferred to nest in abandoned woodpecker nests, particularly those of red-bellied woodpeckers. Of the 44 nests the Florida researchers surveyed, 20 were in old red-bellied woodpecker holes. Furthermore, contrary to earlier studies, those great crested flycatchers had less interest in nesting in naturally occurring hollows in live trees.

The great crested flycatcher likes to nest in a mixed deciduous forest

The great crested flycatcher likes to nest in a mixed deciduous forest (Photo by fishhawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Great crested flycatchers are summer residents throughout eastern North America east of the Great Plains, from southern Canada to the Gulf States. They like to nest in mixed deciduous forests, but will make do in human-constructed places such as orchards, gardens, or golf courses.

Here on our mountain the males return from their wintering grounds in late April or early May, a week or more ahead of the females. Most of them return to the same area year after year and occasionally have the same mates. The males establish their territories by clashing with their competitors. Dr. Samuel Dicky, writing from the backwoods of West Virginia where he watched great crested flycatchers for more than 30 years, observed (as quoted by Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Flycatchers, Larks, Swallows, and Their Allies, p.107) that “males were seen to clash…where the natural habitats of pairs overlapped. They then would draw up close to one another…expand their wings, spread their tails, and dart rapidly at each other. Then they tore some feathers from breasts, held fast with their claws, and tossed and tumbled on the ground.”

Once the females arrive, the males spend their time chasing and copulating with them. They also follow their mates closely during nest-building and egg-laying to make sure they are not cuckolded. Nests in Pennsylvania are built in May and early June. After pairs choose their nesting cavity, the female fills it with a wide variety of materials from leaves, seed pods, and grass to the hair of domestic and wild animals, feathers of native birds and poultry, and bits of bark, cloth, and paper, making them packrats of the avian world.

Almost every great crested flycatcher nest has a shed snakeskin, often left hanging outside the cavity, and lacking that, items of similar texture—cellophane, plastic wrappers, onion skins, or thin paper. Why they do this has been debated for years. Since not all nests have snakeskin, many researchers think the birds don’t recognize what they have and like the texture. Others believe that they are used to deter nest predators, but surely not snakes because they are major predators on their eggs and nestlings especially black rat snakes.

Recently, researchers in Arkansas found that the presence of snakeskin in nest boxes deterred mammalian predators, particularly southern flying squirrels. And nest boxes without snakeskin were preyed on by those squirrels. That seems to settle the question, at least in Arkansas.

A yellow-throated vireo

A yellow-throated vireo (Photo by Matt Tillett on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once the nest is built, both parents defend it and the surrounding area, attacking small mammals and most birds, which may be why I observed one May day a great crested flycatcher attack a singing, flying yellow-throated vireo in our yard, only my second sighting ever of that vireo species on our mountain. They tumbled earthward before the flycatcher flew one direction and the vireo the other.

Great crested flycatchers are feisty birds. Florida ornithologists watched them attack most birds near their nests from Carolina wrens to European starlings and even woodpeckers, including northern flickers. Once one even went after a black rat snake that had eaten its nestlings, yelling so loud that it attracted a northern mockingbird, blue jay, and northern cardinals that added their cries to those of the flycatcher.

The female great crested flycatcher incubates her four to eight, heavily splotched, yellowish or pinkish-white eggs while her mate continues to guard her and the nest. After 13 to 15 days, their eggs hatch and the young spend another two weeks in the nest. Both parents feed them, although the female is the primary breadwinner.

A great crested flycatcher preparing to feed an insect to its young in the cavity below

A great crested flycatcher preparing to feed an insect to its young in the cavity below (Photo by Bruce Bodjack on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The nestlings eat the same variety of insects the adults do, namely butterflies, moths, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, stinkbugs, flies, bees, wasps and dragonflies. But the parents will crush the larger insects in their mandibles before feeding them to their nestlings. They also give them spiders and small wild fruits.

When they fledge, at 13 to 15 days old, the family stays together for three more weeks. The parents continue to feed them with diminishing frequency. They also defend their fledglings.

By midsummer I no longer hear the strident calls of the great crested flycatchers. And in September they are heading south.

Because they are edge species and able to adapt to nest boxes, they are still common throughout their breeding range. Here they increased in southeastern Pennsylvania from the first breeding bird atlas, when they were detected in 73% of the atlasing blocks, to the second atlas when they were found in 89% of the blocks. Roy A. Ickes, writing in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, theorizes that the birds “may benefit from the increased number of dead trees and canopy gaps associated with adelgid infestation” that has killed most of the hemlocks.

But great crested flycatchers remain most abundant in the ridge and valley, lower Susquehanna Valley, and north western corner of the state. They also live in forested residential areas around lakes. But even though they are still widespread here with about 192,000 birds during the season, their population declined an estimated 32% in the two decades between the first (1983-1988) and second (2004-2009) breeding atlases.

We can only hope that this loudest and showiest member of the flycatcher family will continue to adapt in the future to the human-caused changes in their increasingly fragmented habitat.

 

 

The Gifts of May

Spring is my favorite season and May my favorite month. To me, beginnings are always more thrilling than endings and comings more wonderful than goings as I experience all the excitement of new and resurrecting life—the returning of birds, the blooming of wildflowers, trees and shrubs, and the newborn fawns, bear cubs, and other mammals.

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

May gives me these and other gifts every spring when I welcome back scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, Acadian flycatchers, worm-eating warblers and all the other part-time bird residents of our Appalachian forest as they return from incredible journeys to once again court, mate and raise their families.

My May journal is filled with bird sightings and songs. Most are expected, old friends. Others are less familiar or less common on our property and are passing though in search of their particular habitat, for instance, the yellow warbler last May 24, which likes early successional lowland habitat and was singing in our remaining elm tree beside our access road.

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Another surprise, two days later, was a female northern harrier that coursed low over our overgrown First Field, occasionally dropping into the grasses but coming up empty. Once an American crow flew at her when she was on the ground but was quickly routed. It was a treat to watch as she dipped and swayed over the field, her white searchlight bright above her tail, which flared to expose its black and white stripes.

As I walked down the driveway for a closer look, she easily maneuvered through the black locust trees along Butterfly Loop, 50 feet or so above the ground, before disappearing from view. Sometimes I see northern harriers here in fall or winter, but never in spring because, as a denizen of large, open fields, she, like the yellow warbler, breeds in the nearby valleys and was only a visitor.

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still another bird species, the lovely white-crowned sparrow, visits us and appears in the spring only when our dandelions go to seed, even though its habitat—brush, forest edges, and thickets—is plentiful here. On May 3, I was treated to the sight of a pair of white-crowned sparrows hanging out in our backyard with two gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeaks and the sparrow-like brown and white of a female grosbeak. Although the grosbeaks breed on our mountain, they are rarely seen. It was a special gift of May for me to see two such striking birds together.

Then there is the inevitable mystery bird. Late on a lovely May 20th afternoon, I sat on our veranda, binoculars in hand. I heard what sounded like a partial Baltimore oriole song and found the singer up in a black walnut tree. It looked like an oriole and was yellow with white wing bars and a black face and neck. It turned out to be a first year male orchard oriole. I had been puzzled because I had only seen the adult male orchard oriole here a couple times in 45 years and they have dark chestnut rumps and breasts and black heads, necks, backs, and tails.

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But a quick look at the oriole pages in my Peterson field guide and I had identified the mystery bird. It too had strayed from its usual valley habitat of floodplains, marshes, the shorelines of large rivers and scattered trees, or along streams as well as open farmland.

According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, although orchard orioles only spend three months of the year here, they are continuing a remarkable northward expansion in the commonwealth along river valleys and now are found in varying numbers nearly statewide. But in our county—Blair—they were only noted in small numbers in the farm valleys.

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Personalities of birds vary widely as I discovered last May. As I approached the back of the spruce grove on May 23, a sharp-shinned hawk sitting in a black locust tree near the grove began calling loudly and then flew low and directly toward my head, veering off at the last minute and then landing on a nearby branch.

The following day it was even more aggressive, diving at me a couple times when I tried to enter Sapsucker Ridge Trail near the grove. For five years sharpies had raised young in our spruce grove and never were aggressive even when I walked through the grove. Usually, one parent or the other would be sitting and watching on a locust tree, and when I approached would call quietly as a warning to the other parent on the nest.

Then there had been a year without sharpies nesting in the grove. This aggressive one could have been an offspring because those sharpies always were successful raising a family as I discovered every August when their fledged young screamed for food from the tops of the spruces for a week or so before flying off to catch food on their own. Surprisingly, despite the aggression of this new sharpie, I heard no such proof of nesting success last August.

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still, because of that “crazy” sharpie, I walked off-trail through the woods to avoid the bird instead of taking my usual trail near the back of the grove to the vernal pond. As I approached the pond, I spotted a black bear walking slowly away from me, his butt still wet from his wallow in the water.

I froze and watched as he shook himself like a dog and then meandered slowly to a patch of evergreen wood ferns where he nosed around for a few minutes. Next he plodded to a nearby tree and stretched up to rub his back and scent over its trunk.

Suddenly, he turned and peered in my direction. I remained still and quiet, and he turned away and continued his slow walk until he was out of sight.

Once he was gone, I was able to track his wet steps out of the pond and over to the fern patch. I never did figure out what he was looking for. I had assumed food, but perhaps he had scented a male rival or a possible female mate, hence his back-rubbing. I only wished that I had arrived a little sooner and seen him paddling in the pond. Nevertheless, it is always a thrill to watch a bear that isn’t aware of my presence and going about his bear business.

Wood frog tadpoles (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Wood frog tadpoles (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I had gone, as I do most spring days, to the vernal pond to keep track of the wood frogs. As I had written in my March column, last spring all had gone exceptionally well for the wood frogs. But in April the expected rains didn’t come. Day by day, I watched as the pond slowly dried up. But the end of April I found only a few tiny puddles and a few wood frog tadpoles fighting for life. Once again the wood frogs had lost their gamble—or so I thought.

Then came the rains of early May. On the twelfth, it finally cleared by mid-afternoon, and I took my usual walk up First Field Trail where a ruffed grouse performed her broken wing act, on to the Far Field Road and Coyote Bench, where I was serenaded by red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers and American redstarts, and over to the vernal pond area to see if it had refilled. But first I paused to admire the spreading patch of still-blooming spring beauties near the pond.

With a heavy heart, I approached the vernal pond and blinked. It was seething with wood frog tadpoles, a veritable tadpole soup. How was it possible?

I contacted Dr. Jim Julian, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona. He specializes in herpetology and years ago gave my husband Bruce and me a tour of the vernal ponds at the Scotia game lands (SGL#176). He told me that he had “seen wood frog tadpoles survive in really wet/soupy mud for a couple days. While they use their gills to get oxygen from the water, they’re using their skin for respiration also, [which] is probably why they can live for a while after the ponds dry.”

So, mystery solved, but still such a recovery seemed almost miraculous to me and still another priceless gift from last May.

 

Earth Day Birding Classic

It was the brain child of our youngest son, Mark, who teaches geography and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona and one of his students, Catherine Farr. Laura Jackson, president of our Juniata Valley Audubon Society, quickly signed on to their Earth Day Birding Classic 2016.

The white-crowned sparrow, the symbol of our team, photographed by Kelley Colgan Azar in Chester County, PA (Creative Commons license)

The white-crowned sparrow, the symbol of our team, photographed by Kelley Colgan Azar in Chester County, PA (Creative Commons license)

Patterned after the numerous bird-a-thons, such as the world-renown, New Jersey World Series of Birding, participants had to join one of five designated categories and count as many bird species as possible during a 24-hour period—noon April 22 (Earth Day) until noon April 23. Within each category, every team had to choose a name. Although the geographic area covered by the Birding Classic was Blair County and the counties that border it—Centre, Clearfield, Cambria, Bedford, and Huntingdon—only two team categories could bird more than one county—Osprey, which consisted of Penn State students, and Coot, the senior citizen category for folks 65 years and over.

It probably won’t surprise you that Mark created the Coot (think “old coot”) category specifically for my husband Bruce and me and that we were the only team in that category, even though there were other participants older than that who signed up for other categories. Furthermore, we had to dream up an appropriate team name. In keeping with the elder theme we called ourselves the White-crowned Sparrows.

The Shrike Out team won the Towhee Prize with 92 species for Centre County: team members, left to right, Kurt Engstrom, Carl Engstrom, Catherine Farr presenting the award, and Carolyn Mahan (Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson)

The Shrike Out team won the Towhee Prize with 92 species for Centre County: team members, left to right, Kurt Engstrom, Carl Engstrom, Catherine Farr presenting the award, and Carolyn Mahan (Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson)

Although everyone involved considered this a fun project, we also had to get pledges in bird-a-thon style for either each species identified or a flat contribution to a team. I hate to ask people for money (my little sister used to sell my Girl Scout cookies for me), so I limited my request to Facebook friends and received a few pledges when folks realized that their money would support bird conservation and bird education in Central Pennsylvania.

Previously, except for my Winter Raptor Survey in Sinking Valley, all my other yearly bird counts—the Christmas Bird Count in December, Great Backyard Bird Count in February, and International Migratory Bird Count in mid-May—had been done on our property.

An osprey hovering at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia (Photo by Ron Holmes/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons license)

An osprey hovering at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia (Photo by Ron Holmes/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons license)

I was eager to try my luck in other areas, so on Earth Day at noon, Bruce and I were off under warm, humid and overcast skies. Since his eyes weren’t as good and my hearing not as sharp (we are, after all, in our mid-seventies), we figured that between the two of us and good optics, we could find at least three dozen species. That’s what we told potential donors anyway. Besides, the spring was late and many of our usual mid-April arrivals had not yet shown up on our mountain.

Our first destination was Canoe Creek State Park, where I hoped to find waterfowl on the lake. I wasn’t disappointed. We were met by a Pipit team, friends of ours from the Juniata Valley Audubon Society who were competing in the “on foot only” category. As we set up our scope, they kindly pointed out three rafts of lesser scaup, four horned grebes and a common merganser, as well as many mallards and Canada geese. An osprey flew overhead and then landed on a tree across the lake. Through the scope we had a marvelous view of this masked, fish-loving raptor that has recovered in Pennsylvania due to conservation efforts.

A red-winged blackbird calling its “cheer-i-lee” song (Photo by Alan D. Wilson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A red-winged blackbird calling its “cheer-i-lee” song (Photo by Alan D. Wilson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

We spent more time than we should have at the park, combing its lawns and brushy areas, but we found common grackles among the dandelions and red-winged blackbirds in the marshes calling their “cheer-i-lee” songs that have always spelled spring to me. Tree swallows swooped past, and we managed to see and hear a yellow warbler, eastern phoebe, yellow-rumped warbler, common yellowthroat and several blue-gray gnatcatchers, but the dominant singers were tufted titmice and American robins.

The Lower Trail along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River (Photo by Mjm350 in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The Lower Trail along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River (Photo by Mjm350 in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Then it was on to the Lower Trail, a rails-to-trails site along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River. This time we did not need a scope to see the rufous-crested head of a female common merganser repeatedly washing her head in the water directly below us. We also heard the rattling cry of a belted kingfisher as it zipped past. Halfway up a talus slope on the other side of the river, we spotted the white head of a male bald eagle sitting on a slanting branch near his nest. On a tree trunk beside the trail we watched a hairy woodpecker foraging and calling.

A northern parula (Photo by Dan Pancamo in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A northern parula (Photo by Dan Pancamo in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Best of all for me, though, was hearing a bird I only see occasionally on our mountain, a northern parula high in the sycamore trees beside the river singing his definitive “zeee-up” buzzy trill. This warbler is more easily heard than seen and even though I craned my neck in typical “warbler neck” fashion, I could not catch a glimpse of that small, blue-gray warbler with a yellow-green triangular patch on his back, yellow throat and breast, and necklace of black highlighted by red.

By then it was close to 4:00 p.m. and the overcast skies had started to spit rain. Trying to beat the rainstorm, Bruce quickly drove the 10 miles to Sinking Valley. We managed to hear and see killdeer and were treated to an eastern meadowlark concert on one of the Amish farm fields. A flock of wild turkeys ran across a back road, and just before it started to pour, we encountered calling cock pheasants above us along a fallow field edge while several hens skulked quietly in the underbrush below or stood still beside the road, looking as if they were hiding from their suitors. Of course, we also saw lots of house sparrows, rock pigeons, and European starlings, all birds that we never see on our mountain.

A black-throated green warbler (Photo by Dan Pancamo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A black-throated green warbler (Photo by Dan Pancamo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

That ended the first half of the Birding Classic. We hoped for better weather the following morning, but it was still cloudy at 6:30 a.m. when we set out on foot on our property and saw the first black-throated green warbler back in the edge of our forest along First Field Trail. A common raven croaked overhead.

Beside Laurel Ridge Trail the first ovenbird sang his “teacher, teacher” song. I also heard the jumble of notes followed by “look at me, look at me,” from a ruby-crowned kinglet and, in the spruce grove, the high-pitched “zee-zee” of a golden-crowned kinglet. A black-and-white warbler sang “wee-sa, wee-sa, wee-sa” from the top of the same tree at the edge of Sapsucker Ridge where a black-and-white warbler sang the previous spring.

A male red-bellied woodpecker (Photo by Ken Thomas in Wikipedia, in the public domain)

A male red-bellied woodpecker (Photo by Ken Thomas in Wikipedia, in the public domain)

A red-tailed hawk sailed over the ridge as we watched the warbler, and as we walked back down First Field, we saw a sharp-shinned hawk sitting in a tree beside the field. Field, song, and white-throated sparrows sang in the brushy field while chipping sparrows buzzed in our shaggy yard. The eastern bluebirds busied themselves in and out of their nest box near the barn, while eastern towhees sang and called loudly wherever we walked especially along Greenbrier Trail, making it difficult to hear other birds except the American crows.

The woodpeckers were also active. A pileated drummed and called near his old nest site. The yard red-bellied fussed his way up to his black locust nest hole. A flock of northern flickers foraged on the woods’ road and downies hitched their way up and down saplings. Northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, brown-headed cowbirds, and American goldfinches rounded out our list.

The White-crowned Sparrows team, left to right, Bruce Bonta, the author holding the Coots trophy, and Catherine Farr presenter of the award (Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson)

The White-crowned Sparrows team, left to right, Bruce Bonta, the author holding the Coots trophy, and Catherine Farr presenter of the award (Photo by Mike and Laura Jackson)

At 11:30 a.m. we ended our count with a total of 53 species, and since we were the only team in the Coot category, we won. Our gold-colored, flying bird trophy sits in a prominent place in our home as a reminder that we must defend our title this year or hand it over to other old coots.

We are participating again this year from April 22 noon to April 23 noon and we would appreciate any pledges for our team. If you are interested, please contact me (use the contact button). This non-profit event is again co-sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program at Penn State Altoona and the Juniata Valley Audubon Society. Any money you pledge for us will support bird conservation and education in Central Pennsylvania.

 

My “Arena of Delight”

March is a month of hope and resurrection in the natural world. I carry hope with me as we cycle through days of cold and snow, sunshine and warmth, and I bear witness to a variety of sights and sounds during my daily morning walks.

American woodcock

American woodcock (Photo by Fyn Kynd Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

As soon as we have patches of open field, American woodcocks return from their wintering grounds in the southeastern United States. I stand outside at dusk listening and watching as they “peent, peent,” then fly high in the sky and twitter as they plunge back to earth and start over again. But no matter how many times they perform, it is never enough, and I am outside most evenings, waiting for encores.

On early March days I stand at the top of First Field, straining eyes and ears, watching as hundreds of tundra swans fly northwest in wavering flocks like white angels whistling in the wind.

Shortly afterward, the first turkey vultures rock past, catching the breeze wafting over First Field. Those black scavengers haven’t gone much farther than southern Pennsylvania, a few no more than 20 miles from here, yet we rarely see one after mid-November or before mid-March.

A tufted titmouse singing

A tufted titmouse singing (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

March is also the official start for birdsong, although resident black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice have been singing off-and-on since late January. Still, I can expect to hear the singing of our wintering migrants in March—American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and white-throated sparrows—before they move farther north to breed.

Some birds that are migrating through the state, such as fox sparrows, also sing. Song sparrows, those that stayed and those that returned, keep up their relentless “spring is here” song even during cold snaps. But no sparrow song sounds sweeter than that of returning field sparrows and First Field soon reverberates with their downward spiraling songs.

A winter wren singing

A winter wren singing (Photo by Ron Knight in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Winter wrens that have spent the cold months near our stream sing the loveliest and longest song of all, and if we have any Carolina wrens they have been singing their rollicking song all year. Soon enough, eastern bluebirds, American robins, and northern cardinals add their songs to the mix.

It may not be a song, but when I hear the froggy-sounding “fee-bee” of eastern phoebes and see their sleek gray and white selves perching on our electric lines and flicking their tails, it seems as if spring is truly here.

Raptors too make first appearances, and on a warm March day I am treated to the sight of a pair of courting red-tailed hawks over First Field, renewing their monogamous bond by diving, screaming, and dangling their legs. As often as I’ve watched their preliminaries, I’ve never seen courtship feeding, interlocking talons or beaks, and spiraling together toward the ground during their aerial displays.

A cooper’s hawk in a deciduous woods

A cooper’s hawk in a deciduous woods (Photo by William H. Majoros in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Cooper’s hawks also set up territories and call, especially early in the morning, and usually in our deciduous forest. But last March they called from our spruce grove, which has been the breeding choice of sharp-shinned hawks for years. Because the grove is thick, I only know the sharpies are in residence when I hear their warning cries or see a parent perched nearby in a locust tree as I approach the grove, and finally in August when their offspring fledge and call over and over like lost children.

American kestrels are even more secretive, and even though a male returns in early March and sits expectantly on the powerline right-of-way most March days, no female appears while I’m watching. I always hope that a pair will set up housekeeping in one of the many holes pileated woodpeckers have drilled in the power poles, as a pair did back in the 1970s, when my sons and I enjoyed watching the newly-fledged young and their parents flying over the field, but it’s never happened again. They weren’t even tempted by the kestrel nest box we erected one spring.

A barred owl in the spring

A barred owl in the spring (Photo by Mark on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

For decades we had great horned owls courting in January, but over the last several years, as our trees have aged, they have been replaced by barred owls. Those owls breed later than great horned owls, and although they are liable to call all year, they call most frequently here in early March before egg-laying. They even call during the daytime, and I hear them in mid-morning as well as mid-afternoon somewhere behind the spruce grove.

Mammals are also stirring. Woodchucks are out and about, even though the males trotted from burrow to burrow in February to mate with ready females and gray squirrels and foxes courted late in January and early February. Black bears rarely appear until April, but I take in my bird feeders every night once it warms up in March.

Close-up of a porcupine (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Close-up of a porcupine (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Porcupines have been active all winter, but one of the first signs of spring is a porcupine eating tree buds high in the only surviving American elm tree in our exclosure. They also graze on grass like woodchucks. The first time I observed this, I thought it was unusual, but I see this behavior every spring. They are so busy eating that they pay no attention as I walk within eight feet of them and watch as they snap off and eat one grass stalk after another. If I get too close to one, it will look up, slowly turn around, and erect its rosette of quills. That’s when I turn around and leave it to its grass banquet.

On an early March day I am sometimes lucky enough to encounter eastern chipmunks mate-chasing. Last March I interrupted a male chipmunk chasing along Big Tree Trail, and when I sat down on a large log to watch, he ignored me. A couple times a female chipmunk ran 30 feet up a tree to a pileated woodpecker hole and took refuge from her male chaser. The many fallen trees provided runways for the chipmunks and included the one I was sitting on. There the pair paused, and it was the female that zipped past my feet and escaped. Two more timorous males that had joined the chase, stopped, waited a couple minutes, took an alternate path away from me, then quickly scented the female and followed her trail. She, in the meantime, had disappeared and they did too. Unlike once years ago, I did not see the mating of the chipmunks.

A wood frog floating during spring mating season (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A wood frog floating during spring mating season (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

To witness the culmination of a courtship that happens during March, I spend hours at our vernal pond observing wood frogs. After spending the winter freeze-dried down in their burrows, they rise and hop to their natal pond. The males arrive first by the dozens, and they sound like quacking ducks as they call while swimming in the pond.

One warm, overcast day I encounter 100 wood frogs calling and swimming in our vernal pond as I creep from tree to tree, getting close to the action without being seen. A mating ball of masked, brown, male wood frogs tumble over a larger, pink female with one of her legs high in the air. From a tiny bear wallow 20 feet away, two more male wood frogs leap out and head for the larger pond as if drawn by the frenetic sound and action.

I move closer and closer and sit to watch less than ten feet away. They pay me no attention even as they call above a roaring March wind. A few climb out of the vernal pond and sit on logs in and around the water as they continue calling, their bodies shaking with the effort.

A mass of wood frog eggs

A mass of wood frog eggs (Photo by The Natural Capital on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On later days the pond is quieter and the few wood frogs left much shyer. Still, when I slowly circle the pond, in its murky depths I see large clusters of jelly-like balls filled with eggs and know that later in the spring day by day I’ll watch the metamorphosis from eggs, to tadpoles, to tiny wood frogs that leave the pond to spend their lives in the leaf litter. Only occasionally do I see a wood frog until the following March when hundreds return to repeat a sight for me that never grows old. A video by Dave captures the spirit of the wood frogs in Plummer’s Hollow.


Sometime on a late, warm, March morning the eastern garter snakes emerge from the ground near our old well. At first the smaller males move around aimlessly, but then a larger female appears and the males rush to form a mating ball around her. I watch as they tumble down our hilly lawn. Only one male will inseminate her then, but it’s difficult to figure out which one because males emerge, join, leave, go back into holes, return, and finally the ball disintegrates as the snakes slither off in all directions.

Late in March the first chipping sparrows return and the first eastern towhees call. Ruffed grouse drum and migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers mew like kittens. My favorite season is well on its way, and I’m grateful to be alive and able to appreciate my “arena of delight,” as poet Mary Oliver says, that is spring in Pennsylvania.