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.

 

February Journal Highlights, Part 2

Last day of the Great Backyard Bird Count

February 19. Seven degrees at dawn and clear but quickly warming up to eleven degrees. In the middle of my daily exercises, Bruce came into the bedroom to say, “I think I heard a bluebird singing.” Could it be? I rushed outside, binoculars in hand, listened and scanned the telephone wires. Nothing! Then I heard it. Again I scanned the wires and this time I saw, perched on the wire above the bluebird box, a male bluebird, its gorgeous blue back silhouetted against the snowy field. That’s the first one we’ve seen in several months. Is he a sign of spring?

All the birds seem activated today. As I stood coatless on the veranda, a crow cawed overhead. Later, snowshoeing up First Field, I heard a singing Carolina wren and several titmice. In fact, titmice have been in full song mode for weeks.

Sitting on the fallen tree behind the spruce grove, I heard a pileated woodpecker and in the grove itself juncos “ticked” and chickadees “dee-deed.”

Marcia on snowshoesThe snowshoe trails have firmed up and the going was easy. Downies and hairies “peek, peeked” and once a chickadee sang his “fee-a-bee” song. At the Far Field a deer snorted and a cardinal sang a quiet “pretty” at the Far Field thicket. I also heard chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, blue jays, and Carolina wrens. The latter, it seems, have made it through the cold snap. But I wonder about the eastern towhee. I snowshoed on over to the Second Thicket and sat on a log for twenty minutes, listening for any towhee call, but I heard nothing.

Snowshoeing on Pennyroyal Trail above the Far Field I did find three cedar waxwings feeding silently in the European buckthorn tree above the old red fox den. In the snow beneath the tree, two juncos and a white-throat fed on the fallen fruit. A pair of cardinals called back and forth. A song sparrow flew up with a junco along Pennyroyal Trail. I also heard another bluebird call. Altogether I had two more bird species, plus more numbers, to report to the Great Backyard Bird Count. During the last four days I’ve managed to find 26 species on the mountain.

A fat porcupine debarked a tree branch below the Far Field, the first one I’ve seen in several months.

Visitors to the Feeder

February 20. By mid-afternoon, it was 50 degrees in the sun on the veranda, and I took my afternoon tea seated in my chair, soaking up the sun and listening to the steady drip of snow melt in the drainpipe.

A smallish opossum ate birdseeds on the back porch steps at sunset.

February 22. Thirty-four degrees at dawn and mostly overcast. An all-time high record 32 mourning doves at the feeder area this morning along with seven gray squirrels. I also spotted the first chipmunk out and running along a log in the flat area below the back porch slope. Both titmice and Carolina wrens sang in the dawn.

February 26. Eighty juncos at the feeder area–another all-time record.

I waited until afternoon to set out and tried to walk in my old snowshoe tracks that I could barely discern under a couple inches of new, wet snow. Whenever I missed the tracks, I sank into four inches or so of snow.

Gradually, it began to clear. I sat on Coyote Bench and heard a guttural noise, probably from a squirrel. I looked up to see a white and gray bird flapping up from the valley. I managed to get my binoculars on it and saw almost totally white underparts with black wing tips–a male northern harrier. It continued on up over the mountainside and out of sight.

February 27. On this second day of Project FeederWatch, I had my first ever crow at the feeder, probably the same lone crow that was hanging out in the yard the other day.

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Photo: Marcia on snowshoes, Feb. 24 (Dave Bonta)