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.

 

Happy Birthday Project FeederWatch

It’s mid-November and once again I‘m engaged in Project FeederWatch, keeping a record of the number and species of birds visiting my back porch feeder area. As a veteran of this citizen science project started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, both they and I are celebrating our 30th year engaged in this unique program.

A male northern cardinal (Photo by Torindkfit in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A male northern cardinal (Photo by Torindkfit in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The rewards have been enormous. Not only have I seen as many as 22 bird species at the feeders during the cold, snowy winter of 2014-15, but I have also observed interactions between small mammals and birds fighting for seeds on the ground. Although last winter, which was unusually warm, was not an exciting year for my feeder-watching, other wildlife observations while feeder watching added to my enjoyment.

This morning, for instance, shortly after 7:00, while glancing out at the feeder birds on the two tube feeders hanging from our back porch, I spot an eight-point buck walking to the edge of the woods and making or, more likely, freshening a scrape, pulling down a branch repeatedly with his mouth to leave his scent and then pawing the ground beneath.

Three does foraging at the edge of the woods (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Three does foraging at the edge of the woods (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Only a few yards from the buck, I see one, two, and finally three does foraging at the border between the woods and the flat area. I think I might see chasing and breeding, but he seems to sense that they are not yet in estrus.

When eight mourning doves feeding on the ground below the back porch steps suddenly take fright and fly, probably because they can see me standing at the kitchen door window staring out at the deer, the buck flees too. The does, though, continue eating placidly with no visible reaction to the buck’s retreat.

An American tree sparrow

An American tree sparrow (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Week after week last winter I entered the same bird numbers and species, sometimes seeing as few as 11 species during my weekly, two-day count. But field work often consists of persistence with now and then a breakthrough. Mine came last February 16, when I recorded 18 American tree sparrows on the feeders and ground below, followed on March 3 by 21 tree sparrows. In previous winters my number of these sparrows hovered in the low single digits, and I couldn’t account for so many of these birds.

When the annual Project FeederWatch (PFW) report for the top 25 bird species from 6,498 sites in the northeast was issued, the American tree sparrow was 24th on the list, reported at 36% of sites, and the average flock size was three! All my other feeder birds—black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, blue jay, northern cardinal, American goldfinch, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, song and white-throated sparrows and Carolina wren were much higher on the list.

A dark-eyed junco

A dark-eyed junco (Photo by CheepShot in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Chickadee was first at 97% of sites, but that included both Carolina and black-capped chickadees, so dark-eyed junco, second on the list at 94% of sites, continued to be the most common feeder species. The flock size for juncos averaged four, but I’ve counted between 60 and 80 most years.

When I report those numbers, they are flagged during my online reporting as a result of a “smart filter” system the Cornell Lab has developed to root out mistaken observations. Species not usually seen in the area or high counts of a species are questioned. An error message pops up, and I am asked to confirm my number. Then when I do, my report is forwarded for review by PFW staff and regional biologists. Had I reported a rare bird, they would have required more validation, including a description of the site and bird and a photograph, if possible.

Because PFW data is being used by more and more researchers, they had to develop a reporting system that would increase both researchers’ and participants’ confidence in the resulting data. They tested their new “smart filter” system during the three winter seasons of November 2007-April 2010, flagging 50,104 PFW submissions out of a total of 3,924,088 or 1.3%, and reviewers approved 97.7% because a rare species had been confirmed in that region or, in my case, because large flocks of a species occasionally occur here. As researchers concluded in a paper about validating PFW reports, “Our methods ensure that unexpected reports are subjected to expert scrutiny, resulting in a more accurate and reliable data set regardless of the user.”

A pine siskin

A pine siskin (Photo by Hvbirder in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

In contrast to last winter’s mild temperatures, the winter of 2014-15, which began late, was the coldest in decades. It was also a pine siskin invasion year. As they poured south from their boreal home grounds, we saw our first ones on November 9, 2014 when three dozen visited our feeder area. They must have headed farther south because our next siskin visitation happened on January 6, 2015. After that, it was every bird for itself and the mammals also, since pine siskins may be small, but they are feisty.

For example, on February 2, a cold, windy day, a sea of birds covered the ground when I threw out more birdseed in mid-afternoon. The siskins fought off all comers. Two on the large tube feeder fought with house finches and won. They scared off chickadees, tufted titmice, and each other as well as American goldfinches. The blizzard of birds, including siskins, continued through February and into a freezing March, with the siskins paying their last visit on March 30.

A black-capped chickadee

A black-capped chickadee (Photo by fishhawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

According to a paper about boreal bird irruption, pine siskin irruptions may happen every other year but also may occur in consecutive years or at longer intervals. Using more than two million PFW pine siskin observations from 1989-2012, researchers studied the patterns of pine siskin irruptions from their Canadian boreal homes where they eat conifer seeds to the high elevation Adirondack and Appalachian Mountains.

They concluded that a wet spring in the boreal region leads to a small seed crop, but a dry spring in the Appalachian region leads to a large seed crop. If the winter air temperature is also unusually cold in the boreal region, which even stresses these cold-adapted birds, they will irrupt south where the seed crop is plentiful. “This study,” they write, “is the first…to reveal how climate variability drives irruptions of North America boreal seed-eating birds.”

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse (Photo by Cindy Sue Causey on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Using PFW data to track changes in winter bird communities has been useful in studying climate change in our backyards according to Karine Prince and Benjamin Zuckerberg. They maintain that since the 1970s, North America’s climate has been changing especially during the winter season with less and shorter snow cover and more variable and heavy precipitation.

Choosing 38 bird species that winter in eastern North America, they tested the influence of changes in winter minimum temperatures over 22 years and found that the winter bird communities became increasingly dominated by warm-adapted species such as mourning doves, Carolina wrens, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and dark-eyed juncos, which moved northward about 4.2 miles a year.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Last winter PFW also received several reports of pine warblers as far north as Nova Scotia and growing numbers of hermit thrushes at northeastern feeders visiting two to four percent of sites.

The latest addition to PFW studies is a plea for us to report bird interactions at feeders. They began this project late last season and received 1,994 observations from 200 feeder watchers. Most were of one bird displacing another, 37 of one bird catching and eating another, and 23 of one bird mobbing another. Usually larger birds displaced smaller ones but sometimes smaller birds turned the tables with house finches displacing cardinals and downy woodpeckers displacing mourning doves.

A house finch

A house finch (Photo by Lee Coursey on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I see many interactions a year, especially the winter of 2014-15. Some are harmonious such as the early January morning when a cottontail rabbit, a gray squirrel and juncos, white-throats, a tree sparrow, two song sparrows and a cardinal pair fed together on the porch and steps. Later they were joined by house finches, and goldfinches. Chickadees, titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches appeared and competed with goldfinches and house finches on the hanging feeders. Mourning doves flew in and out, as many as ten at a time, and a red-bellied woodpecker made several hurried appearances.

But our peaceable kingdom dissolved during a snowstorm two weeks later when four squirrels, the rabbit and 13 mourning doves pushed the small birds from the covered porch floor where I had spread birdseed. Then the birds that only eat from the feeders arrived—nine goldfinches, a couple chickadees and three house finches but goldfinches even displaced the house finches. A pair of cardinals sidled in and scared off as did a female red-bellied woodpecker.

Thus, instead of merely counting and recording my feeder birds I can contribute my observations of such interactions to PFW and help them learn more about what drives the interactions of feeder birds.

Happy 30th birthday Project FeederWatch, and may we celebrate many more birthdays together! A two-minute YouTube video provides an effective introduction to Project Feederwatch.

Not a Snipe Hunt

On a cold, crisp day in late January, my husband Bruce, son Mark, and I set out on our annual Winter Raptor Survey in nearby Sinking Valley. Although a substantial snow had fallen the previous day, all the township roads had been plowed, and Bruce had no trouble driving our usual 35-mile route.

The spot in the stream across from the Little Country Store where we saw the snipes

The spot in the stream across from the Little Country Store where we saw the snipes (Photo by Bruce Bonta, December 12, 2016)

Despite a light breeze, we counted only three red-tailed hawks, three northern harriers, and two American kestrels. When we stopped at the Little Country Store for groceries, we heard killdeer calling across the road. Two killdeer and 13 mallards waded in a tiny stream bisecting a snow-covered Amish field.

Most surprising of all were four Wilson’s snipes probing in the mud beneath an inch or so of flowing water, their long bills stitching like sewing machine needles. The snipes were crowded into a two foot by two foot curve in the stream that had a small rock on one side. Even though I had seen many American woodcocks over my lifetime, I had never seen a Wilson’s snipe.

We walked across the road for a closer look at the short, stocky shorebirds which were studies in brown and beige with three white stripes on their dark brown and gray backs, heads striped white and dark brown, beige-spotted breasts and white bellies. One snipe tried to hide behind the rock when it noticed us, but half of its head and long bill stuck out, reminding me of a small child unsuccessfully playing hide and seek.

Wilson’s snipe

Wilson’s snipe (Photo by Larry Jordan on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Mark was hoping the snipes would fly so we could see their rapid zigzag flight and hear their rasping “scaipe” calls. But on that cold winter day, they were too busy probing in the mud for worms and other small invertebrates, while their large eyes, set far back on their heads, allowed them to watch us even while they foraged.

Seeing Wilson’s snipes at that time of year in central Pennsylvania was unusual we thought, but when Bruce talked to the bird-watching Amish teenager, who lives next to the store, he told Bruce that as many as five Wilson’s snipes were there every winter. Certainly the small steam in a pasture habitat matched their wintering requirements which also include muddy ponds, ditches, ephemeral pools, barnyard drainage, marshes, beaver ponds, or spring outlets.

A Wilson’s snipe found in a North Carolina marsh

A Wilson’s snipe found in a North Carolina marsh (Photo by DickDaniels in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

However, according to Terrestrial Vertebrates of Pennsylvania: A Complete Guide to Species of Conservation Concern, “successful overwintering in Pennsylvania [of Wilson’s snipe] is probably rare except possibly in brackish marshes of the extreme southeastern portion of the state.” Gerald McWilliams and Daniel Brauning, writing in The Birds of Pennsylvania, agree that most wintering snipes are found in Pennsylvania’s Coastal Plain and Piedmont but admit that there are widespread but local winter records most years in our Ridge and Valley province and in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Still, having heard the spoofing stories of snipe hunts, I was amused that while hunting for raptors we had found snipes instead.

A Wilson’s snipe and a northern bobwhite, from Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology: or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States (1812), volume 6 plate [47]. In the public domain

A Wilson’s snipe and a northern bobwhite, from Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology: or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States (1812), volume 6 plate [47]. In the public domain

Once our Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata) was considered a subspecies of common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), but, based on recent taxonomy studies, it was classified as a full species in 2002 by the American Ornithologist Union. Named for Alexander Wilson, a Scottish immigrant who lived in Philadelphia, he was a self-trained ornithologist and artist, who traveled throughout the eastern United States, collecting and studying birds. He produced his nine-volume American Ornithology at the beginning of the nineteenth century which earned him the title “Father of American Ornithology.”

Wilson’s snipes breed in wetlands across northern North America and usually winter from the southern United States through Central America to Venezuela. Pennsylvania is near their southern breeding range in eastern North America, and because they are so dependent on wetlands throughout the year, they have been selected as a Species of Maintenance Concern in the commonwealth. Between the first and second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird atlases, their numbers decreased by ten percent. In addition, they are rare breeders here most likely in the wetlands of northwestern Pennsylvania in the counties of Crawford, Lawrence, Mercer and Erie. In fact, back in 1923, George Miksch Sutton, who became a famous ornithologist and artist, was then Pennsylvania’s ornithologist and watched several Wilson’s snipes nesting in Crawford County.

A group of snipes in a pond

A group of snipes in a pond (Photo by leppyone in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Wilson’s snipes migrate through the state beginning in mid-March, moving in flocks on moonlit nights, the males a week or more ahead of the females. Their extra-large breast muscles that give them their plump appearance enable them to fly as fast as 60 mph.

If any Wilson’s snipes are still here in mid-April through May and early June, they may be breeders. And if any birdwatchers are especially lucky, they may observe their diving flight displays, when their outermost tail feathers spread to make a “winnowing” sound that reminds me of the tremulous calls of eastern screech-owls. Most frequently males display to defend territories and attract mates, but sometimes females also “winnow.” They even “winnow” occasionally during migration as well as on their breeding grounds and at all times, both day and night, but most commonly after sunset.

They have an array of calls and displays as part of forming pairs, even flipping upside down during dives. Finally, once they are paired, they fly close together with their wings held at 45 degrees in a nuptial flight display. Leslie M. Tuck, who studied them on their nesting grounds in Newfoundland and Ontario, published his monograph on them back in 1972 and recorded their many courtship displays.

A nest of a Wilson’s snipe

A nest of a Wilson’s snipe (Photo by rich Mooney on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A female has her choice of several males and even copulates with a few, only establishing a pair bond with one male after she’s chosen her nest site and begun to lay her eggs. But she spends time, as soon as she arrives in her breeding area, looking for a nesting site and making several scrapes on wet areas such as hummocks or edges of sedge bogs, fens, marshes, willow or alder swamps. She places her nest on the ground, well-hidden by grasses, sedges, or sphagnum moss, lining her shallow scrape with grasses.

She lays two to four olive-brown eggs and incubates them for 18 to 20 days, Twenty-four hours before they hatch, the chicks begin peeping, and the female responds by straddling the nest and clucking softly. Covered with down that dries within an hour, the chicks climb on the female’s back or wander away on their long legs and huge feet.

A snipe chick

A snipe chick (Photo by Guy Monty on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The male usually takes the first two hatched chicks and the female the second two, leading them to wet areas where they feed them bill to bill. But at six days of age, the young peck at food and probe for it, becoming proficient when they are ten days old, although the parents continue to feed them for at least another ten days and as long as two months, according to researcher K.A. Arnold writing in Tacha and Braun (1994).

Mostly they eat the larvae of crane, horse and deer flies, beetles, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers, and ants as well as snails, crustaceans, and worms, using sensory pits near the flexible tips of their bills, to find prey by touch. Their bills are also flexible and open to grasp food without moving from the soil. Sometimes not only their entire bills are covered with water but their foreheads as well in their hunt for food.

Distraction display by a Wilson’s snipe

Distraction display by a Wilson’s snipe (Photo by Kathy & Sam on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The earth colors of Wilson’s snipes provide them with camouflage, so they only flush at the last minute when confronted by a predator. They also practice a distraction display—the females at their nests and both parents with their young—by fluttering up from the ground or nest, falling back to the ground, spinning and fluttering around, falling on their sides and beating their wings, as if in a drunken rage, or lying on their breasts and beating their wings.

Although there has been no observation of egg or chick predation, great horned owls, peregrine falcons, merlins, northern goshawks, Cooper’s hawks, and especially northern harriers prey on adults.

Wilson’s snipes begin their migration south as early as mid-July in Pennsylvania and may not reach their destination until November if they are heading as far south as Venezuela. Juveniles leave first, followed by females and then males. They don’t always remain in one place, for instance, numbers of snipes in Venezuela increase in January and February at the same time they decrease in southern Louisiana. Apparently, they move in search of food, especially if their chosen spots have dried out.

If Tuck and other researchers are right and at least 40 per cent of Wilson’s snipes return to the same wintering grounds every year, I can look forward to seeing them this winter and subsequent winters as long as the habitat remains unchanged.

To see and hear a Wilson’s snipe calling, watch a video on YouTube from Wild Bird Video Productions.