Ah March! It is the month that raises and often dashes my hopes as it swings from winter to spring and back again until I am dizzy from keeping up with the changes.
Every high school student who has been forced to read William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar remembers the prophetic “Beware the Ides of March” spoken to Caesar by a soothsayer. For him it foretold the day of his assassination. For me, the 15th of March may be a bright, sunny day foretelling spring, a blizzard concluding winter, or, most likely, something in between. So it was on March 15, 2013.
Even though it was overcast and 27 degrees, I was happy to take my morning walk after many weeks inside because of a muscle tear. My destination was the Norway spruce grove where I hoped to see the red-breasted nuthatches that had been wintering there since the previous October.
As I approached the lower end of the grove, I paused to watch a small flock of black-capped chickadees fly into a black locust tree at the edge of the trail. From there my eyes were drawn to movement at the top of a Norway spruce which was thick with long, dangling cones.
Through my binoculars I first spotted a red-breasted nuthatch and was glad to see that one was still making use of the grove. With the nuthatch was a dark-eyed junco and—could it be—two male red crossbills and one female extracting seeds from the cones. I stood and watched them as long as my back and neck could stand it. Instead of “warbler neck,” as birders describe their discomfort while observing warblers high in the trees, I developed “crossbill neck” and was pleased to do so knowing that seeing these birds here would probably be a once in a lifetime experience for me.
Of course, I had seen that one female red crossbill in the spruce grove during our Christmas Bird Count on December 15, and I wondered if it was the same female that had brought the two males or if the three had merely encountered the grove during their migration. Or maybe they weren’t migrating. Red crossbills are known to breed wherever they find a mature cone crop, beginning as early as late December or early January. Still, that seemed unlikely and, in fact, according to our county report in Pennsylvania Birds, my red crossbills were the only ones observed here in March.
I scanned the treetops to look for white-winged crossbills but saw no sign of them. The red crossbills were silent and difficult to watch as they were often hidden behind the large cones. Still, I felt amply rewarded for venturing out on that dreary day.
When I returned home, I found Hoover outside below the back steps. My husband, Bruce, had whimsically named this spike buck back in November because of the way he “hoovered” up birdseed. We thought he had been shot during rifle season because he had disappeared over the winter. But there he was back again and keeping the ground-foraging birds away this Project FeederWatch day when I count birds for the Cornell Laboratory of Birds. Since I was more interested in counting birds than feeding Hoover, I chased him away several times, but back he came like a bad penny. Finally, I ran after him, holding my broom high over my head. This caused much merriment among the males in my family, but it also discouraged that young buck for the rest of the day.
Most importantly, his rout encouraged 10 song sparrows to fly down and feed on the seed. They, it seemed, were migrating despite the weather.
In the evening our son Dave called me outside. An American woodcock was performing what the late, great conservationist Aldo Leopold called his “sky dance.” I grabbed my coat and rushed down to the barnyard to join Dave in our annual spring ritual. What better way to celebrate the coming of my favorite season.
Standing in the cold and damp, we could hear the woodcock “peenting” across First Field. Then we heard the twittering of his wings, but we couldn’t see him flying high and diving down in the dusky light. We listened several more times to his calls and twittering wings before giving up for the night.
For me, the Ides of March had been a wonderful day, foretelling spring, but for the woodcock it foretold his possible doom. It snowed that night, and the next day, when our caretaker, Troy Scott, drove up our road, he saw the woodcock standing in the corral area. When he drove back down, the woodcock was standing in the road ditch, drenched and disconsolate. The ground had frozen once again, making it impossible for him to poke into the earth and extract earthworms, his favorite food, or other invertebrates.
That was the last we saw or heard any woodcock last spring because it snowed off-and-on for well over a week and remained bitterly cold. Even the songbirds stopped migrating.
But some springs are better than others for observing woodcocks on our property. One spring a woodcock called so loudly that I heard him through the walls as I sat in our living room reading in the early evening. I crept out on the front porch and traced his calling to the flat area at the edge of the woods down slope from our house. Finally, he fluttered off toward the First Field.
I walked up First Field Trail past our garage following more “peenting” and had an excellent view of his flight skyward, but he landed far up the field toward the spruce grove. By then it was almost dark and I knew that he would be finished soon and resume in the early dawn light.
The following evening, I had stepped off our veranda to listen and first he called from the springhouse area, then on the trail above the garage, and again concluded far up First Field.
Another spring our son Steve and I watched a performing woodcock on the same trail above the garage, but that time the bird was so engrossed in his display that he kept landing and “peenting” a mere 20 feet from where we stood, giving me the best view ever of a singing woodcock.
Other than singing here in March, we’ve never found evidence of nesting even though our old field, small wetland, and forest edge should be ideal nesting ground. But the females are adept at hiding their nests, and while the polygynous males move on, females choose nesting areas, construct their ground nests, brood, and care for their young.
But at noon, one early August day, Bruce slammed on our car brakes to avoid hitting what appeared to be a young woodcock at the bottom of our mountain road. It continued bobbing its way up the left hand track of the road until it was stopped by a drain spanning the road that it couldn’t cross. That’s when it flew off. According to some researchers, August is the time when broods break up, and young woodcocks go their solitary ways, which is why I thought that the woodcock might be a youngster still learning how to survive on its own.
However, last spring, like Julius Caesar, the Ides of March did not bode well for at least one woodcock. March was a starvation month not only for our resident species, like the spike buck, but also for birds that returned too soon. Only the red crossbills had found sustenance here.