The Ides of March

red crossbill in the rain

red crossbill in the rain by Lynette Schimming (Creative Commons BY-NC)

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.

buck eating birdseed

buck eating birdseed by CoolValley (CC BY-NC)

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.

woodcock in snow

woodcock in snow by sighmanb (CC BY)

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.

Woodcock at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge

Woodcock at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge by Tom Tetzner/USFWS (CC BY)

Early Sounds of Spring

By early February, bird calls begin morphing into songs. In the “fee-bee” of black-capped chickadees, the “peter-peter” of tufted titmice, and the more complex, bright caroling of house finches, I hear the beginning sounds of spring.

At first the resident birds seem unaffected by the weather. The overwintering song sparrow sings “hip, hip hoorah, boys, spring is here!” in the teeth of a snowstorm. Northern cardinals “pretty, pretty” on the coldest days of mid-February. And the irrepressible titmice, chickadees, and house finches sing no matter what the weather, proof to me that it is the lengthening daylight, not the temperature, that encourages their songs.

But at least a small warming trend is needed to bring in the first eastern bluebirds singing “cheer, cheerful charmer,” the eastern phoebe’s low-pitched repetition of its name, and the wild “dee-dee-dee” of killdeer flying overhead. By the end of last February, the dawn chorus around our house included American tree sparrows, song sparrows, an eastern phoebe, bluebirds and cardinals.

With the advent of March, the sounds of spring intensify. Canada geese and tundra swans sweep over the mountain day and night, “honking” and “woo-hooing.” Down in the hollow the first winter wren’s song echoes ethereally, and I plan many walks in hopes of hearing it.

On the first of last March, though, I was doubly rewarded. Sitting on Dogwood Knoll, I heard the “cheerilee, cheerilee, cheerilee” song of a Carolina wren. After six years they were back on the mountain. I had last heard and seen them in the bitter January of 1992 when a pair of them had followed mouse tunnels into our basement to escape the minus five degree cold.

Since then winter wrens had set up housekeeping among the tree debris spanning our stream and had partially filled the Carolina wren void in my life. Even as I rejoiced in the return of the Carolina wrens, a winter wren’s song also emanated up to Dogwood Knoll. Now, how was I to choose between those two marvelous songsters–the one otherworldly, the other very much of this world.

Not all the birds are musical. The woodpeckers–pileated, hairy, and downy–usher in the season with drumbeats, the larger the woodpecker, the louder the drumming. One pileated likes a resonant tulip tree trunk a quarter mile from our house, but we hear him, loud and clear, whenever he hammers out his syncopated beat. Although red-bellied woodpeckers and northern flickers also drum to claim their territory, it is their calls–the “kwir, kwir” breeding call of red-bellieds and the “wick-a, wick-a, wick-a” of the flickers–that I listen for in early March.

At the feeders the wintering dark-eyed juncos begin trilling by the second week of March and mourning doves “coo-coo-coo” in what sounds like sad surrender to the season. In the woods wintering brown creepers also start to sing what I think of as an upside-down eastern meadowlark song. Every winter we seem to have more and more wintering brown creepers, but although the March woods ring with their lovely songs, I have not yet discovered any breeding on our mountain.

Years ago a pair of red-winged blackbirds persisted in nesting in First Field for several seasons. Since then, despite planting cattails in our small wetland to encourage their return, red-winged blackbirds have only been visitors, dropping in by the hundreds on an early March morning when the fog is thick. Dim black bodies swirl from tree to tree, the swishing sound of their wings magnified by the fog. Best of all, are their “o-ka-lay” songs, essence of early spring music to my ears.

Then there are the robins. On a thawing day they sometimes appear by the hundreds running over First Field in search of food and “tut-tutting” with what sounds like self-importance to my human ears. But it is their beautiful, thrush song that I wait to hear, each male reverberating with as much resonance as its close relative, the wood thrush. Once in a while we are privileged to have a robin in residence who sings songs with greater variation and complexity than usual. I watch such robins closely to make certain the songs are really coming from them and not from some hither-to unknown bird species.

Birds are not the only creatures I listen for in early spring. Sometime in March, depending on the weather, I hear the first ducklike quacking of wood frogs down in our tiny pond at the bottom of First Field. Their siren calls compel me to crawl through the dried weeds and ease myself up on the hillock that overlooks the pond.

After a few minutes the wood frogs spot me and dive out of sight, so I sit down in front of the pond without moving for at least half an hour until one by one silent, froggy heads pop up. They watch me for a long time before they begin calling and bumping into each other as they test to make sure there are no unattached females in the pond.

I sit there hour after hour, mesmerized by the calling, swimming, mating and egg-laying ritual of wood frogs in our six-foot-by-three-foot pond and I am always sad when the wood frog courtship season is over.

Ruffed grouse intensify their drumming, and wild turkeys begin gobbling in early March. Ring-billed gulls wheel over the mountain by the hundreds, their calls evoking dreams of a summer beach. The downward “keeer” scream of red-tailed hawks frequently pierces the sky.

But one late afternoon in early March, after a wind picked up, a pair of redtails emitted a new call as they circled above Sapsucker Ridge. To me it sounded like a tin horn, but the experts call it their “chwirk-call.” As I watched from the veranda, one hawk landed in what looked like the remnants of an old nest on the ridgetop, while the other flew overhead, its legs extended downward, as it circled, called and then landed in first one treetop, then another, and still another, as if it were pointing out possible nesting spots. It was performing the “talon-drop” display that redtails do to defend their territory or during courtship.

One call that I listen for most springs, but rarely hear, is the “peent” of American woodcocks. But last March we heard more American woodcocks than we had during the previous 26 years we have lived here. Only twice before had we heard and then watched the male’s spectacular “sky dance,” as Aldo Leopold called it, near dusk over First Field.

Spring officially arrived at 2:58 p.m. on March 20. But it was a disappointing day because it was raining hard and fog blotted out everything beyond our driveway. At 6:40 p.m., when my husband Bruce headed down to our mulch heap with the day’s garbage, he heard the “peenting” of an American woodcock near our barn. He ran back to tell me and our son David, and we rushed down to listen and watch in the light mist and dusky light.

The show continued for 20 minutes more over First Field beyond the barn. Sometimes the woodcock flew directly overhead, but we couldn’t see anything except an occasional flash of birds’ wings, both because it was almost dark and the clouds were very low. The number of “peents” varied from five to seven to 12 to 27 before we heard him chirping above us during his song flight and then finally the whistling of his wings as he plummeted to earth. The “peents” seemed to come from several directions, even overhead, yet they are supposed to emit them only on the ground. Researchers claim that the displaying male rotates on the ground, which causes a directional change in the intensity of the “peents.” That may explain what we heard or, possibly, that one woodcock hadn’t read the books.

Many eastern North American fields are used as singing grounds during the spring, but the functions of the peenting and chirping song flights have not been studied. Ornithologists assume that they are used to advertise the position of each bird to other woodcocks, but they often peent and fly when they are alone.

However, if another male appears or a female visits, the display is intensified. Up to six males have been counted at one singing ground and, as they migrate north, they move from singing ground to singing ground where they also mate with whatever females they find. Most continue displaying and mating for two months once they arrive on their breeding grounds which can be as far north as southern Canada.

They display twice a day, at dawn and dusk. At dusk they fly or walk to their singing ground from wherever they have spent their day and then, after their display, they fly to a separate place to spend the night or sometimes remain on the singing ground overnight. At dawn they fly back to their singing ground. Probably the length of their displays is triggered by light intensity since, on foggy nights, for instance, they begin earlier and end sooner.

We have always assumed that our First Field was merely a stopover point for an occasional migrating American woodcock, although we have the habitat they like–young forest and abandoned farmland mixed with forest–at the boggy bottom of First Field. But our hopes rose that maybe we were nurturing a breeding female three days later when again an American woodcock displayed in the lower First Field at dusk. We even had a marvelous view of his overhead flight because the evening was clear. The following evening still another display occurred.

On the twenty-eighth of March, as we sat on the veranda near dusk, an American woodcock flew past low to the ground, but it gave no display. That, it turned out, concluded our woodcock appearances and we found no woodcock nests. Those sky dances, though, were the highlight of last March’s spring concerts.

March ended, as usual, with two beautiful sparrow songs. First were the downward spiraling songs of returning field sparrows who breed in both the overgrown First and Far fields. They were followed by the mournful “poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” songs of migrating and wintering white-throated sparrows.

By the last day of the month our yard, the woods, and even the hollow were filling up with bird music. After a dawn chorus of American tree sparrows, mourning doves, field sparrows, robins, cardinals, song sparrows, juncos, phoebes, bluebirds and house finches, I listened to white-throated sparrows, cardinals, and the just-returned male eastern towhees along Greenbrier Trail. From the depths of Dogwood Knoll an especially enthusiastic towhee flew up, perched on a nearby shrub, and loudly proclaimed his name over and over more than 100 times without stopping.

Then a pair of hairy woodpeckers called to each other. As I watched, the male landed high in the tree where the female was foraging. Calling loudly, he mounted her for no more than a second and flew off, reminding me that that is what all the sounds of spring I was eagerly listening for are about.