Putting Up the Feeders

cardinal pair in a snowstorm

cardinal pair below the feeders in a snowstorm

The day after I cleared the trails of branches brought down by Hurricane Sandy, I hung my birdfeeders up for the first time since the previous April. Because bears live on our mountain, I never tempt them with birdseed, having learned years ago that they will go to great lengths to make a meal of them and, in the process, tear feeders apart.

Even so, I bring them in every night until mid-December and again in March and early April.

I only put the feeders out as early as November because I am a veteran Project FeederWatch participant, having signed on for this citizen science project, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the first year it was offered. Last fall was its and my 26th season, and it began on November 10.

Anyone can join this continent-wide effort by paying a small fee and either sending in paper copies of their count or doing it online at the Lab’s website. If the former, feeder watchers count birds at and near their feeders two consecutive days every two weeks. If the latter, as I do, I can count birds two consecutive days every week. Since I have a reasonably small and simple set-up, mostly I glance out my back kitchen door window and keep a tally card nearby.

The idea is to count the maximum number of each species that I see at one time during my count days. Folks with larger and more elaborate feeding areas containing numerous feeders, sources of water and plantings can report all the species attracted to their much larger count site.

In addition to reporting the birds I see, the report asks for when and how long I counted, the depth of snow and/or ice, the kind and length of time of any precipitation, and the low and high temperatures of the days. Once a season I also fill out a detailed description of my count site including the habitat within a half mile, elevation, the kinds of food I supply for the birds, and the plantings and water sources within 100 feet of my feeders.

Usually I give the birds a week before the start of the season to re-discover the large and small tube feeders that hang from our back porch. Last November third it was cold, overcast, and windy, and as soon as my feeders went up and I spread more birdseed below the back steps, the dark-eyed juncos, back from the north, flew in. They were quickly followed by full-time residents—white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and a red-bellied woodpecker. Next, song sparrows and American goldfinches, a few of which are full-time residents, appeared and so did the first white-throated sparrow of the season, also down from the north.

pine siskin and house finch

pine siskin and house finch

The seventh species to appear was a house finch. Here on our mountain they continue to be late fall and early winter visitors and are often gone by February. Project FeederWatch asks that participants note the presence or absence of eye disease in this species and in goldfinches. I’ve never seen this bacterial infection in the latter but sometimes in the former and I wonder if that is why their numbers peak and crash so soon. Years ago, when this western species, accidentally introduced to the East back in 1940, finally arrived on our mountain, they even nested here. But then their numbers crashed when they developed eye disease, and they never nested here again.

The house finch was followed by a black-capped chickadee and a male and female northern cardinal—two more permanent residents.

And then—glory be—25 pine siskins. Could this boreal bird species be the vanguard of an influx of rare northern birds? Every November a few pine siskins and common redpolls are reported by feeder watchers in Pennsylvania and hopes are raised that this will be the winter for a huge irruption of seed-eating birds from Canada. Reports of a widespread failure in seed-crop production, especially of spruces and birches, had already reached bird listservs so I was delighted to welcome the pine siskins.

The eleventh species of the day was one of our Carolina wrens, now successfully wintering as our climate warms and raising families here in the spring and summer.

A migrating swamp sparrow was the twelfth and last species that day. Never before had so many species appeared the first day I put out the feeders.

swamp sparrow

swamp sparrow below the feeders

The following day a fox sparrow appeared. This lovely, large sparrow always visits us on it way north in the summer and south in the winter. Because of its size—seven inches—it could easily dominate the smaller birds as it scratches towhee-like at the seeds below the back steps, but usually this rusty-tailed sparrow is off by itself, completely ignoring the juncos, song sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds.

Number 14 the next day was the gorgeous male purple finch, his head, breast and rump a rosy-red more brilliant and wide-spread than his close relative the house finch. But unlike the house finch, the purple finch belongs in eastern North America.

The female purple finch, like the house finch, is a study in brown and white, but she is chunkier and has a face patched with dark brown and a white stripe behind her eye.

“Don’t you see,” I frequently say to my husband, Bruce, when I try to point out the difference between the two species. But he doesn’t see what seems so obvious to me.

Then number 15, the American tree sparrow, another northern-breeding species, appears, and Bruce throws up his hands, muttering something about lbjs, better known as “little brown jobs” among birders in the know who can distinguish the many similar-appearing sparrow species and other difficult to identify birds such as the often different colored females. Unlike the seed-eating boreal species, tree sparrows are regulars at my feeders every winter. With its rusty-red head and black dot on its white breast it’s an easy sparrow for me to identify.

common redpoll

common redpoll at the feeder, January 2008

Numbers continued to increase day by day and the sixteenth species, on November sixth, was a sharp-shinned hawk. On that day it didn’t catch a meal because all the birds heeded the chickadee’s warning call and fled.

On the seventh a blue jay and a mourning dove joined the feeder birds while the male purple finch continued to hang around. Already, I was anticipating an excellent FeederWatch count.

But the weather warmed up, and it was a true Indian summer day. The second day was too. As a consequence, both the numbers and species were low—two white-breasted nuthatches, five American goldfinches, three tufted titmice, two black-capped chickadees, 12 house finches (one with eye disease), two red-bellied woodpeckers, three dark-eyed juncos, one song sparrow, one cardinal, and one purple finch. At least I had gotten a purple finch, but on the eleventh it was a male and the twelfth a female, yet, according to the rules, I could only count one purple finch. The same was true for the northern cardinals.

The thinking is that since the male and female of most feeder bird species look similar and are counted as a group, those that are sexually dimorphic, such as the cardinals and purple finches, must be treated the same way. Hence, even though I knew that two cardinals and two purple finches came to my feeders, I could only report one unless both sexes appeared together which, in this case, they did not.

sharp-shinned hawk at feeder

Sharp-shinned hawk at the feeder

The weather continued mild throughout the month and into mid-December, much to my disgust as a feeder watcher and the disgust of our deer hunters. I never did see another pine siskin, and my feeder counts remained low except for the juncos that increased to 20 by the end of the month. The sharpie also returned on that last November count, but once again it didn’t score.

The sharpie waited until the day before Christmas. Our Newfoundland daughter-in-law Pam called us to the bow window and pointed out the sharpie eating a female cardinal on the ground below. She took some photos of it in action that even showcased its orange eyes outlined in black.

Having gotten a meal, it was back the last day of December sitting on an ash tree branch close to the bow window in mid-afternoon for over half an hour. It wasn’t even disturbed by Bruce attaching his camera to the front of our spotting scope and taking frame-filling photos with his “digiscope” on the second day of a FeederWatch.

Such are the rewards of keeping a close watch on the birds that visit our feeders throughout the winter months. In addition, the records we send into Project FeederWatch, along with feeder watchers all over the continent, enable ornithologists to better understand the distribution of wintering birds and to track emerging diseases, such as the eye disease, and other problems birds may face.

All photos taken at Marcia’s birdfeeders. The first four are by Dave; the last is by Bruce, taken through his “digiscope” set-up.

Earth Day

I was out this perfect day by 6:30 because Bruce was still sleeping, and it was Sunday–his day to make breakfast. I brewed my coffee, slipped on my walking shoes, left a note for Bruce and was off, coffee mug clutched in one hand.

Bluebirds sang in the yard and field sparrow song reverberated in First Field. But I chose the woods and the moss-covered Dump Trail, even though it seemed disappointedly quiet and empty and no birds sang. Before I reached Laurel Ridge Trail, I stopped and sat on a fallen log to watch a couple white-breasted nuthatches foraging on nearby trees.

Then a deer snorted over and over in the woods beyond Laurel Ridge Trail. I couldn’t see it, but I assumed it had caught my scent. I remained motionless and it finally stopped snorting. Still I sat, and suddenly an animal loped past on Laurel Ridge Trail.

“Coyote,” I thought and after it passed I jumped up and ran to the trail, looking up to where I could see its drooping, long, black-tipped tail and backside disappearing over the top of the steep hill. Judging by its size, I figured it was a male, and realized that it was on April 14, 1999 that a big male coyote had walked silently up to me as I had sat on the Far Field Road Bench, worried about my aging father who had fallen and broken his hip. At the time the long look I exchanged with the coyote had seemed almost like a revelation, and I had renamed the bench Coyote Bench. But it has been several years since I have seen a coyote and again it seemed like a revelation.

I walked on to the spruce grove, and as I started up through the trees, a female sharp-shinned hawk flew out of the treetops protesting in her mild way. She joined the male who was perched on a tree branch at the edge of the woods. So once again, for the fourth year in a row, they are nesting in the spruce grove.

Two wonderful sightings before 7:00. “Sunday, sweet Sunday,” I sang to myself, and then I remembered–It’s Earth Day!

Chasing Breeding Birds

“You know you’re getting old when you start repeating yourself,” I thought when I first heard about Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas project.

“Been there, done that,” I said and immediately signed up last spring and became the “owner” of the two blocks that include our property. The same, yet different, is probably an apt description of the present effort. Instead of relying on paper reports of the breeding birds we observe in our blocks, we claim our blocks and send in our reports via the computer, although folks without access to the internet can still participate the “old-fashioned” way.

Having previously discovered that sending reports in electronically for Project Feederwatch was much easier than filling in the charts they sent by snail mail, I figured that it would be just as easy to do the same for my atlas records. Well, it wasn’t. For several months, I was so frustrated that I didn’t even try after my initial repeated rejection by the program. It turns out that other frustrated participants and the people in charge of the program more or less served as guinea pigs, and when I finally took a deep breath and tried again, with the help of my husband Bruce, it worked. This year should be a breeze now that I’ve conquered the electronic bogeyman.

The line between my two blocks runs across the top of First Field directly below the spruce grove so every time I took a walk, I kept two lists of the birds I heard and saw. My home block is 61c65. It includes the hollow, the former clearcut, and a fair portion of both Sapsucker and Laurel ridges. What I call the Far Field block–61c56–takes in the spruce grove, the road to the Far Field, the Far Field itself and beyond. These blocks are large, and I can’t hope to completely cover them, but anyone who makes observations in my blocks is also free to report them either electronically or to the Project Coordinator Robert S. Mulvihill at the Powdermill Nature Reserve.

The seventeen breeding codes for the Second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas are similar to those of the first atlas, and I had no trouble using them. For instance, “X” means “possible,” and is defined as “an individual of a species seen or heard in suitable nesting habitat within safe dates, but not exhibiting any of the breeding behaviors described in” the other categories.

Initially, all my bird observations fell into the “possible” category–69 species in my home block (officially Tyrone 5) and 43 species in the Far Field block (officially Tipton 6). Many remained there throughout the season, but day by day some of the “possibles” became “probables” and even “confirmed” breeding birds.

Because I know my territory well, walk the trails every day, and have, over the years, learned the songs and calls of all the birds that live here, compiling the “probables” was easy. Confirming them was harder because I had to see an adult bird carrying nesting material, food, or fecal sac, observe nest-building, watch a distraction display such as a ruffed grouse feigning an injury, find a recently fledged young, or a nest with eggs or young, or see an adult feeding fledged young. All such discoveries were serendipitous as far as I was concerned.

Yard birds in my home block were particularly easy. One family of eastern phoebes plastered their nest beneath the eaves of our springhouse and another built theirs on top of one of the porticos on our veranda. The springhouse nest, filled with five eggs, was a source of wonder to our four-year-old great niece Morgan visiting from New Jersey. Later, when our nephew Patrick visited, that same nest contained four young phoebes and a huge young cowbird. The cowbird fluttered off the nest and on to the ground when Patrick appeared. He was distressed and wanted to return it to the nest, but I explained to him that it would take more than its share of food from its unwitting foster parents and deprive its foster siblings of food. Nevertheless, we later found that it was strong enough to fly back into the nest. Still, those phoebes did fledge successfully on June 1.

The veranda phoebe nest allowed our visiting granddaughter Eva to watch the parents feeding the young from our upstairs hall window. That family also fledged successfully.

During Eva’s visit in late May and early June, she and our son Dave also discovered an eastern towhee nest with eggs in a barberry bush, and she and our son Steve discovered a turkey sitting on her nest at the base of a beech tree near our road.

Best of all, from Eva’s point of view, was the last walk we took before she went home to Mississippi. As we started down First Field, a hen turkey jumped up from the tall grass a couple feet in front of Eva. She was so startled she screamed and saw one week-old chick run. The mother hen, clucking loudly, walked slowly away, and Eva, entranced by her seeming tameness, followed her on to the Laurel Ridge Trail. Eventually, I persuaded her to leave so the mother could return to her hidden chicks.

I made my own discoveries almost every day in May, June, and early July. On May 16, I stopped to rest on a log beside Greenbrier Trail and was continually scolded by a female hooded warbler. After a while she “showed” me her nest. She landed on it, inside a barberry hedge, moved around, and then flew off. I checked it and found no eggs, but on June 2 she was sitting tightly on it.

Another bird that “showed” me her nest was the Acadian flycatcher. As I walked up the road that same June 2, an Acadian flycatcher scolded. Knowing that they often like to build their nests near the tip of a beech tree limb, I scanned all the small beech trees and couldn’t see a nest. It turned out to be suspended from the branch of a witch hazel tree overhanging the road.

One bird that did not show me its nest was the sharp-shinned hawk. Yet I suspected, as early as April 22 when a sharpie flew out from the Norway spruce grove, landed nearby, and emitted its high-pitched “creer-creer” call, that a pair was nesting there. Still, I played a cat-and-mouse game, mostly with the male, throughout the spring.

But on July 6, as I approached the grove, the male flew out, landed in a nearby black locust tree, and called “creer-creer-creer.” Then, the female suddenly flew from the vicinity where I thought I had found a nest back in May. She too called but disappeared over the hill while the male continued “creering” and flying above me.

Sharpies are so secretive during nesting that little is known of their nesting life. I never saw a sign of life in what I though was their nest built in a dense, double-spired spruce tree. Yet every time I approached the spruce grove, the male would either fly out and call or he would be sitting on the same black locust tree limb at the back of the grove. This spot provided a view of all possible predators including the female red-tailed hawk I saw him chase away on June 6. He looked like the proverbial bee chasing a bear, but even though she seemed to shrug off his repeated diving, she eventually disappeared over Laurel Ridge.

Finally, on July 9, I had my proof. The male sharpie flew over and called as I emerged on the far side of the spruce grove. I heard another, lower pitched call, coming from the deciduous forest near the grove, and then an immature sharpie landed and called “wheep-wheep-wheep” directly above me.

Throughout the month I heard and often saw young sharpies crying “wheep-wheep-wheep” and their parents answering “kik-kik-kik.” Sometimes they flew and called on the ridges and even near our house. The “wheeping” calls of the young sharpies continued into mid-August and several times I saw two together. There may have been more–sharpies average four to five young–but I never saw them.

Although the sharpie nesting was the highlight of my 2004 Breeding Bird Atlas “work,” I did have other exciting confirmations. On June 20, in the late afternoon, cedar waxwings flew continuously to one black walnut tree branch, half-hidden by leaves, and then down into the yard. It looked as if they were gathering either food or nesting material. In early evening, one flew down in front of me to gather something and then flew up to the tree branch where another waxwing was moving around. I thought I could see a nest on the branch, but I wasn’t certain.

Then, on July 13, while sitting on our veranda, I heard scolding calls and saw an adult cedar waxwing perched on our clothesline that repeatedly dove down into the tall grass. I rushed up to look and there sat a small, grayish-brown, cedar waxwing fledgling sporting a white stripe near its eye, a tiny crest, and the yellow stripe on its tail. Both parents dove at me when I tried to pick it up and put it in shrubbery so I left them to solve their own problems.

In addition to the young cedar waxwing, I also saw an adult American kestrel with two immatures perched on our electric wire and a fledgling Carolina wren in our lilac bush.

Baltimore orioles suspended their nest from a black walnut branch that overhangs our driveway; black-capped chickadees nested in an old fencepost near the barn; and gray catbirds built their nest in a thicket of forsythia. I watched a black-throated green warbler gather nesting materials along Greenbrier Trail, a field sparrow doing the same in First Field, and a female wood thrush, accompanied by a male, collecting dead leaves and dried grasses for a late nesting on July 6.

Several birds also performed distraction displays. Along Black Gum Trail one morning, I heard scolding and walked off the trail and “pished.” A blue-headed vireo dove at my head and barely missed me. I couldn’t find the nest but as soon as I walked away he resumed his singing. A histrionic ovenbird blundered around in the underbrush as if it was drunk, bumping into shrubs, and then flew up and down. A Louisiana waterthrush, beside our stream, a worm-eating warbler on the Black Gum Trail, and a brown thrasher, at the edge of the woods, also distraction displayed.

I even managed to watch birds gathering food for their young. Most notable were a male scarlet tanager at the edge of the Far Field Road and a yellow-billed cuckoo at the edge of the Far Field.

I had my disappointments though. A cerulean warbler sang in our yard, as one had the previous year, throughout June. So too did one at the Far Field. Yet they remained on the “possible” list. I would like to have confirmed them because they are, along with several other species I confirmed in my blocks–Louisiana waterthrush, black-throated green warbler, sharp-shinned hawk, wood thrush, and worm-eating warbler–of “general conservation interest” to the Atlas. None of my birds made the higher categories–“regional rarity” or “statewide rarity.” In past years we have had at least two “regional rarities” nesting here–golden-crowned kinglet and winter wren–but not last year.

Still, the quest for breeding birds adds a lot of interest to my daily walks in late spring and early summer and makes me more aware of what is going on in the avian world. And there is always the chance that I’ll discover some of those rarities.

Watching Winter Predators

During winter, we are all in it together–the birds and animals that choose to tough out the season here, and my husband Bruce, our son Dave, and me. Wild creatures and humans alike must have enough food to stay alive and healthy and adequate shelter from cold and wind. For us humans it is relatively easy most of the time. With frozen and canned food, heating oil and insulated houses, we are nourished and warmed. We can even choose to put on warm clothes and boots and go outside every day.

For the wild creatures it is not so easy. Many lose the struggle to survive the winter. Hunger also makes them bold and easier to watch, especially the usually wary predators.

Take sharp-shinned hawks, for instance. Every winter at least one stakes out our feeders, making frequent raids whenever the weather is especially cold and snowy. Because they are juveniles, they rarely kill anything. In fact, studies show that less than 50% of immature sharpies survive their first winter.

Last winter, though, the sharpie that visited our feeders was a bold and skilled hunter. Judging from its size and coloring, it was a mature female. She first appeared on December 9. Juncos crowded our back porch and steps that cold, clear day, and then suddenly, they were gone. There, sitting on the ground below the back steps, was the “blue darter,” and she did indeed have a bluish-gray cast to her back in the early morning light. When she saw me looking out at her, she flew to a weed head, landed, flared her tail, and took off without a meal.

Goodness knows how many more times she returned when we were not looking, but by December 22 three inches of snow covered a layer of snowy-ice, the wind blew, and the thermometer plummeted to the single digits. In midafternoon Dave shouted, “The sharpie has nabbed a junco.”

I rushed to my study window and watched as she plucked and ate her victim on the ground below the back porch. She scattered the feathers, ate the head, pulled out and consumed the entrails, and quickly finished up the remains of the little bird. I could almost hear her smacking her bill contentedly. Then she flew up into a nearby tree, shook her long, banded tail, and flew off.

The following day it was five degrees at dawn and small birds mobbed the feeders and porch floor, eager to stoke up after the bitterly cold and windy night. At 9:00 a.m. I glanced outside. Not a bird was to be seen. The Killer Extraordinaire had struck again. This time she plucked her junco victim even closer to our windows, but when she saw us watching, she picked up the remains of her kill in her talons and flew into the woods.

She showed up again after lunch, sitting in a tree below the feeders, preening and shaking her tail. I went out to chase her, figuring that one junco a day was enough. She, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave. She flew toward our front porch, swerving, I thought, around the ten-foot-high juniper tree outside our bow window. I stepped out on to the porch and peered around the side of the house at the tree. She sat hidden in its prickly midst, but she flew away when she realized I had spotted her.

The next day, at 12:10, I returned from a walk and glanced out the bow window to see the sharpie plucking and eating still another junco on the same clump of weeds she had favored during previous raids. This time, after she finished, she perched on a horizontal weed stem, picked her feet clean, and then sat there as the wind ruffled her feathers. She looked like she was perfectly at home as she glanced around comfortably before finally leaving.

She was back at 3:30 p.m. on December 27, but this time the birds escaped. She also missed on the last two days of the month. Then, shortly after 2:00 p.m. on January 5 I heard a thud against the bow window. The sharpie had again missed her target and sat on a tree branch outside my study window for several minutes. Then she flew into the juniper tree where the juncos were hidden, but she didn’t catch any. Finally, she flew to the edge of the woods and disappeared. In a few minutes the birds were back at the feeders.

Fifteen days later, I heard another thud at the bow window im mid-afternoon. The sharpie grabbed a junco that had flown into the window in a panic and carried it off into the woods to eat. That was the last we saw of her. Four meals, four misses in less than a month–the highest number of kills, by far, that we had ever witnessed, but certainly not enough to keep a female sharpie alive. Her fate, like that of so many of the creatures we watch during the winter, was a mystery.

But snow does help to solve the mystery of what animals are around and how they are doing. Last winter I found the usual tracks–porcupine highways in and out of the spruce grove, deer, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys along our trails, and squirrels, voles, and mice throughout the woods. Coyote tracks were also common, and I knew they had raised a family on our property the summer before. I easily found the smaller, neater tracks of gray foxes, but I wondered if our red fox population had been eliminated by coyotes as biologists claim happens when coyotes move in.

On January 22, in five inches of new snow, I followed two sets of coyote tracks all over the Far Field, where red foxes had always lived. They were classic coyote tracks, between two and two-and-a-half inches long with distinctive toenail marks and heel pads. I saw where the coyotes had sniffed at the bases of trees and poked their heads under blowdowns. Neither burrow I knew of had tracks going in and out, but above Pennyroyal Trail, the tracks converged on a hole beneath an uprooted tree.

Later, as we sat in the kitchen finishing lunch, I looked out across First Field at Sapsucker Ridge and, against the revealing blanket of white, I spotted what looked like a red fox trotting down the ridge.

“Get my binoculars, quick!” I asked Bruce and Dave as I kept my eyes glued on the moving animal.

Through my binoculars I could see that it was a large red fox. Unlike most red foxes, though, it had black along its back and tail as well as on its legs, which made it a cross red fox, according to a color photograph in J. David Henry’s book, RED FOX:THE CATLIKE CANINE. Because of its size, I assumed it was a male.

As we watched from the veranda, he reached the edge of the field and sat down next to a large tree where he groomed his tail and chest before moving back up the slope into the thickets. After a few minutes, he reappeared, trotting along the side of the hill, behind a fallen log, and into thick brush near the powerline right-of-way.

Although red foxes are primarily nocturnal hunters, in the winter they are more likely to hunt during the day as well as in the night because prey is harder to catch. Excited by the sighting, I waited nearly an hour to give him a head start before setting out to track him.

Following up the edge of the woods along the right-of-way, he had crossed it about halfway up Sapsucker Ridge. On the other side he had sniffed around an uprooted tree before continuing into the Sapsucker Ridge woods and then back down into the grapevines and American bittersweet hanging from the trees along the edge of First Field. From there he had meandered the field border for a couple hundred feet before turning up the hillside into the woods.

His tracks were nearly as large as those I had seen at the Far Field, but because red foxes have a lot of hair growing on the bottoms of their feet, they were blurry and the toenail marks were not visible. But I could see his distinctive heel pads, which were shaped like an inverted V.

Halfway up the slope he had turned left and continued straight ahead for several hundred feet before swerving right and going up to the top of the ridge. At the top he had headed toward the vernal ponds but then veered toward the top of First Field, staying well within the woods, even at the corner of the field beyond the spruce grove. There he had looked under an uprooted tree with a nice cavity below.

Finally, he had turned left, putting his tracks precisely into the oval-shaped grooves made by porcupines that led into the spruce grove. Then I lost his tracks in a maze of deer tracks. It was as if he had simply vanished. Or had he realized that I was tracking him and deliberately threw me off his trail? Whatever the case, I was jubilant to learn that at least one red fox still roamed our property.

Probably our most thrilling predator sighting occurred back on January 13, 1999. It was a particularly dismal day–27 degrees and raining. But in mid-afternoon our son Dave stepped out on the guesthouse porch and spotted a least weasel hunting voles near the springhouse. He rushed over for a closer look as the weasel ran through the dried goldenrod stalks to the old well behind the springhouse and disappeared into a vole burrow. Then he alerted his brother Mark who was visiting and while Mark kept an eye on the burrow entrance, Dave ran up to our house to tell me about the weasel.

In the meantime, Mark saw first the vole, then the weasel, zip out of the burrow. The weasel chased the vole up the slope where we caught a glimpse of it just as it disappeared down another vole burrow near the juniper tree outside the bow window. Although we watched that entrance, we didn’t see the weasel again. Probably it had finally caught its victim.

Because least weasels are primarily nocturnal and highly secretive, few people have seen them at any time of the year. For that reason, they are classified as an “at risk” or “status undetermined” species in Pennsylvania. The smallest carnivores, least weasels are only slightly larger than meadow voles, their preferred prey. Most least weasels in northern Pennsylvania turn white in winter, while in central and western Pennsylvania they are usually pale brown as was the one we watched. Their elongated bodies are aptly suited for chasing voles through their runways and like other weasel species, they are efficient killers.

What had been a dull day had certainly been brightened by our close encounter with a least weasel. Like our sighting of the red fox and our visits from the sharpie, we never know what we will see when we look out our windows in the winter. But we know it is the best of times for predator watchers like us.