Check out the two-part conversation between Marcia and her friend Chris Bolgiano, a naturalist-writer from the mountains of western Virginia, at the Woodrat Podcast: Part 1, Tales from the Nature-Writing Trenches, and Part 2, Greening the Appalachians.
Our plane dropped through the momentary hole in the clouds and made a perfect landing on the St. John’s runway. After a day’s delay, because of fog, we had finally arrived in Newfoundland. Place of my dreams, this island in the sea is halfway to Ireland. And yet here is where our beloved Appalachian Mountains begin.
Not only were we far from Pennsylvania, but we quickly discovered that we were far from the so-called modern world. We felt as if we had returned to the days of our youth before malls and fast food outlets, when motels were small and family-owned, most people were lucky to own one car, homes were neat and modest, and the world was half as crowded as it is now. Newfoundland roads follow the contours of the landscape instead of blasting through it as our interstates do, and the slower pace of life allows folks to engage in conversation as entertainment, even with foreigners like us.
However, all was not idyllic in Newfoundland. Because the cod fishery had crashed, back in the 1990s, due to overfishing by both the Newfoundlanders and foreign fishing fleets, we expected to see crushing poverty. But during our three-week visit to Newfoundland and Labrador, we saw people who make do, catching fish, hunting moose, and picking a bonanza of wild berries — blueberries, partridgeberries, raspberries, squash berries, bakeapples, blackberries, strawberries — that thrive in their bogs, barrens, and forests.
They use handmade wooden sleds to haul out the wood they cut for winter heat, leaving the sleds along the roadsides until they are needed. Garden plots, fenced and guarded by makeshift scarecrows, line the roadsides and are often far from the nearest community. The soil, tilled and enriched with kelp from the sea, yields an abundance of cold-tolerant vegetables, especially potatoes.
Most of the restaurants and motels are run by women. They spend their winters making aprons, jams, and other gift items to sell to the trickle of tourists that visit this remote province. Many of the men have left for the oil sands of Alberta where they can make a living for themselves and their families back in Newfoundland.
Even though Newfoundlanders speak English, every town has its own version of the language and, in one case, we couldn’t understand a word they said. Before roads, villages along the sea were only reachable by boat, and these outports, as they are called, were so isolated that their linguistic heritage — mostly Scottish, Irish, English, and Welsh — has retained the accent and expressions of the 17th century when their ancestors arrived in the province.
European settlement in Newfoundland dates back to the eleventh century when the Vikings built an ephemeral village on the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Centuries later, in 1497, John Cabot landed on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula and claimed the land for England. Then Sir George Calvert, First Baron of Baltimore, set up the colony of Avalon on the Avalon Peninsula in 1621 before he left for warmer climes and founded Maryland.
So what possible connections could there be between Pennsylvania and the remote province of Newfoundland and Labrador besides the Appalachians? Well, at least a few folks in the town of Arnold’s Cove are Steeler fans, or so one couple told us when we met them on the Bordeaux Trail. They also asked to take photos of us so they could prove to their town council that folks from Pennsylvania had used their trail.
Arnold’s Cove, like all the towns we visited in the province, has a scenic, well-kept trail open to the public. Many such trails include elaborate boardwalks and bridges that span wetlands and streams. The Bordeaux Trail of Arnold’s Cove, for instance, wound six miles around a series of coves at the head of Placentia Bay. It was on such trails that we traced the connections between their natural world and ours.
We arrived the last week of June. Lilacs bloomed in the dooryards and giant dandelions along the paths at Cape Spear National Historic Park, the easternmost point in North America. A constant breeze kept the dreaded north woods’ mosquitoes and black flies away, and we had, for the most part, glorious weather.
We saw our share of seabirds — close-ups of northern gannet, common murre, and Atlantic puffin colonies, for example. I even had a puffin stand beside me, a highlight for this puffin-lover. But of the 56 bird species we saw, 45 of them either migrate through or also live in Pennsylvania. Many of the plants and trees were the same or closely related to those from areas in the commonwealth.
However, only five of the nine mammal species we saw also live in Pennsylvania — mink, otters, red squirrels, snowshoe hares and woodchucks. But woodchucks, called “whistlers” by the locals, only inhabit Labrador, which is connected to mainland Canada through Quebec, and both red squirrels and snowshoe hares are introduced species. So too are moose, which were introduced in Newfoundland in 1904 to help feed a starving population. They have multiplied like white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania, and Newfoundlanders fill their freezers with moose meat. Mooseburgers, moose stew, and moose soup are popular items on restaurant menus. But talk to park naturalists and botanists, and you hear about how moose are devouring the understory throughout Newfoundland.
Another new species in Newfoundland arrived in 1985 by crossing the frozen Cabot Strait from Nova Scotia. Already the eastern coyote has helped to upset the balance between native caribou and lynx, their historical natural predator, at Gros Morne National Park, according to the park naturalist. In winter, coyotes hunt in family packs, like wolves, and bring down adult caribou when both species retreat to windswept areas of the park that are relatively free of ice and snow. To further complicate matters, native bald eagles, since the fish stock collapse, have been preying on baby caribou. Consequently, their herd is dwindling. In addition, most of the caribou in the Avalon herd, in southeastern Newfoundland, have died of brain worm.
Despite the overpopulation of moose, we found abundant plant life along the trails. In spruce forests and barrens, the understory of blooming Labrador tea — a Pennsylvania rare plant — sheep laurel, and rhodora reminded me of the Long Pond area in the Poconos. The Coastal Trail at Terra Nova National Park wound through a spring wildflower display of bunchberry, yellow clintonia, starflower, sarsaparilla, Canada mayflower, and absolutely gigantic pink lady’s slippers. Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), which is a Pennsylvania threatened plant, was an abundant ground cover. Pitcher plants, the province’s wildflower (like our state wildflower), bloomed in every bog.
But we were especially overwhelmed by the wild lupines that flowered in roadside ditches and abandoned fields, looking as if they had been planted. In a sense they had been. One Newfoundlander told me that lupines produce abundant seed, which they collect and scatter over open land. Here in Pennsylvania, the wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis) is listed as rare and seeing one is always a special treat.
The forests of Newfoundland and Labrador are primarily evergreen — spruce, balsam fir, white pine, larch — but deciduous trees include white birch, aspen, and red maple, a northern boreal forest. Such a forest nurtures many songbirds that are rare breeders in Pennsylvania, especially blackpoll warblers and yellow-bellied flycatchers, which sang in every spruce forest we hiked through.
But the most common singers in the forests were white-throated sparrows, and I wondered if any that I heard had spent April on our mountain. Newfoundlanders told us that their spring, like ours, had arrived two weeks later than usual, which may be why our white-throats had delayed their migration.
Other spruce forest breeders we heard or saw that breed in Pennsylvania included yellow-rumped warblers, black-and-white warblers, hermit thrushes, and northern waterthrushes.
Of the Pennsylvania songbird migrants that breed in Newfoundland and Labrador spruce forests, fox sparrows, which rarely sing when they migrate over our mountain, regaled us with song. So too did ruby-crowned kinglets, palm warblers, and Wilson’s warblers.
American robins surprised us. They were darker than the ones that breed in Pennsylvania and are a separate subspecies, Turdus migratorius nigrideus. Instead of being familiar, dooryard birds, they breed in the cool, damp, coniferous forests of all the eastern Canadian provinces.
In the more open, often windswept areas of the province, in yards and above the sea on bluffs, white-crowned sparrows sang. We heard the protesting calls before we saw breeding spotted sandpipers in the wetland along the Bordeaux Trail in Arnold’s Cove. Greater yellowlegs were common shorebirds; ring-necked ducks and common loons bred on inland lakes. While we sat on an open, grassy area across from a rocky, grassy sea stack of nesting Atlantic puffins, Savannah sparrows serenaded us. Greater black-backed gulls and herring gulls continually harried the puffin colony. Double-crested cormorants nested on an island beyond that colony. On a rocky islet nearby a greater black-backed, gull chick stood next to its parent. Horned larks bred on the open headlands of Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve. This reserve, near the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, is also a botanical treasure with over 300 plant species, 35 of which are rare or endangered. And, we were told by our guide, botanists from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences have been studying them since the 1930s.
During our 200-mile drive on a gravel road in Labrador, past bogs, forests, and lakes, we spotted a pair of rough-legged hawks on top of a rocky precipice. Usually these are birds that we see in Pennsylvania only in winter. Other winter visitors we saw that rarely make an appearance in our state were pine siskins, white-winged crossbills, and pine grosbeaks.
Our first pine grosbeaks were hopping around on a parking lot in Pistolet Bay Provincial Park near Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve. While we were waiting for our guide to the reserve, three pine grosbeaks — two males and one female — landed on the ground next to us. I couldn’t believe how tame they were. They seemed to frequent such places because we next saw them under a wooden staircase leading down to a beach and again they acted as if we weren’t there. These were my first pine grosbeaks, and I was thrilled by the sightings. I was also excited to see another first — white-winged crossbills — at the Botanical Garden of Memorial University in St. John’s.
All through our trip, we mixed the familiar with the unfamiliar — birds, mammals, plants –a nd we counted icebergs off the coast — hundreds and hundreds of all shapes and sizes. On our ferry trip along the coast of Labrador the ferry skillfully threaded its way through them during the foggy night and I remembered the Titanic. Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans seemed as awed by them as we were. They hadn’t seen so many icebergs in decades.
What do icebergs have to do with Pennsylvania?
We were seeing parts of the Greenland ice sheet, which is melting at an unprecedented rate because of global warming. The icebergs were a constant reminder to us that we are all connected in this wondrous world and that we ignore such warnings about our warming climate at our peril, and the peril of generations to come.
Newfoundland Photos by Bruce Bonta
(click thumbnails to go to file pages, then click again to view at full size)
May Day Musings
May 1. 47 degrees at dawn and overcast with a shower before breakfast. Three deer foraged in the flat area and did not flee when I set out the bird feeder.
Halfway along Black Gum Trail, the first ovenbirds finally sang. Our springs are later and later; England’s are earlier and earlier–three weeks earlier, according to British ecologists who spoke on NPR’s Morning Edition. And the second news item (after Bush’s repeat threat to veto time-tables to get out of Iraq in an Iraq War spending bill): scientists have announced that the Arctic is melting three times faster than their computer models predicted. It’s obvious to me which news item is the most important in the long run but not to short-sighted humans, especially politicians. People will go on killing each other over minor issues and, in fact, wars large and small will increase as resources dwindle. On Marketplace they reported that folks in England are so upset over the scarcity of wood, due to unprecedented demand from China, that fist fights have broken out at garden centers over the few fencing materials available.
Yet I sit in our well-watered forest, listening to the birds and chipmunks as a glimmer of sun breaks through the clouds, and feel the utter peace and contentment of my charmed life. To get here, I’ve donned mostly old clothes except for my new boots, made of extra-soft kangaroo leather to pamper my arthritic feet, and assembled in China by an American-owned company. My socks, however, which are also extra thick and soft, were made in Iowa of merino wool by a small company called Fox River. I’ve burned no fossil fuel to get here. Still, my life, like everyone else’s, is built on compromises–fossil fuel to heat our home and run our machines, buying local food as much as possible to keep large refrigerator trucks off the road and support our local economy, buying a more gas efficient car but still driving, air-drying clothes as much as possible but using an electric clothes washer, etc.
The Waterthrush Bench Louisiana waterthrush is definitely back and sings loudly over and over as I past by.
A single rue anemone flowers in the dark place where the hepaticas grow and where a few still bloom.
The first tiger swallowtail of the year comes floating off Sapsucker Ridge toward me.
Return of the Last Neotropical Migrants
May 2. The Baltimore oriole greeted me at 6:30 this morning. Then Dave came in and had me listen to a strange song outside. It was a blue-winged warbler, but try as I might I could not see the elusive singer, unlike the oriole who didn’t mind being seen at all. Still, the blue-winged warbler’s “song” is unmistakeable.
At 7:00 I stepped outside to listen again. This time it was a brown thrasher singing from the top of a yard tree. He wasn’t difficult to see either. Dave says one has been back since early April, but that was the first I’ve heard or seen one. But then I’m not out on my back porch drinking coffee at the crack of dawn every day as Dave is.
As I pulled on my boots at 8:45–zoom–past me. It could only be a ruby-throated hummingbird, and indeed it was. He perched briefly on a sapling and then flew over to sup on the Virginia bluebells as if he remembered them from other years. What a hummingbird magnet those flowers are. And luckily the deer don’t like them.
Descending the hill on Laurel Ridge Trail, I heard a singing hooded warbler who hushed, along with the ovenbirds, when a sharpie flew overhead and then slowly circled above.
Coming toward the spruce grove, I heard a singing scarlet tanager on Sapsucker Ridge. Dave had heard a “chit-bang” yesterday but no song.
As I sat on Alan’s Bench, sharpies, hidden in the dense spruces, made their usual polite protests on both sides of me.
As the sun shone more brightly, a wood thrush sang below in the woods.
At the edge of the Far Field, golden black birch catkins shimmered in the sunlight as I listened to a chorus of birds–white-throated sparrows, field sparrows, black-and-white and black-throated green warblers. A sapsucker tended his wells. I saw at least one yellow-rumped warbler and heard a singing ruby-crowned kinglet. A black-throated green warbler groomed himself on a cherry tree branch and then sang. I also heard the buzz of a worm-eating warbler and the melodious wood thrush. A small flock of white-throats foraged among the ice-toppled trees. Common yellowthroats sang and a pair of flickers called. Least flycatchers also sang and I saw my first American redstart finally. I heard and then saw, high in a tree, a singing rose-breasted grosbeak. If only the warblers were as easy to see as the grosbreaks!
As I crossed the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I encountered a huge, fresh bear scat, which is evidence that at least one bear roams the mountain. But I haven’t seen one in such a long time and this is the year our mother bears, if they are still alive, should be having cubs.
Later, while I finished the dinner dishes, Bruce sat out on the veranda reading, but he looked up in time to see a great blue heron perched in the black walnut tree. Then it flew off toward the Little Juniata River.
May 3. As we walked out to the car at 8:15 to drive to State College, we were serenaded by a newly arrived catbird singing in the ailing blac walnut tree overlooking the forsythia where the catbirds nest every year.
Back home shortly after 3:00 and I was out before 4:00, heading for the deer exclosure. Mayapples are still only singles, which means still no blossoms after seven years. How long does it take for a colony to bloom? On the other hand, Solomon’s seals are huge and dangle blossoms beneath their leaves as still more germinate every year. Large beds of purple violets bloomed also.
Blue-gray gnatcatcher, towhees, blue-headed vreos, and black-throated green warblers sang and called, and chipmunks and gray squirrels scampered about their businesses.
I moved on up to my favorite white oak tree, accompanied by the scolding of a wood thrush. But when I sat down, he serenaded me for many holy minutes, even while a robin briefly tried to compete. He interrupted his singing to poke about in the ground detritus, but then he turned toward me and more music flowed from his beak, as if he were directing his songs at me. He was brightly spotted on his white breast, a truly handsome bird. I’ve never seen one singing on the forest floor as he moves about. It was almost as if he was performing a concert just for me.
May 7. My back went out on the morning of May 4, and I’ve been housebound ever since. The days have been cool, clear, and beautiful as the trees slowly leaf out. Wood thrushes sing at dawn and dusk, the flickers have definitely taken over the black walnut tree nest hole, and white-throated sparrows still remain and sing this incredibly late spring. I have so little time left to enjoy it and I feel depressed that of all months–May, my favorite one–my back gives out on me. Still, I sit outside on the white plastic chair in the sunlight as much as I can.
Virginia bluebells have spread and are at their height as they spill down the slope. What an inheritance from Dad, especially since none of the herbivores seem to like them. I say “herbivores” because I just watched a woodchuck, on its hind haunches, pulling down and eating black raspberry leaves from canes below the back steps. And to think I’ve been blaming it on deer.
I took a slow, early afternoon walk, drawn on by a singing scarlet tanager. I never did see the tanager, but I had a good view of a foraging yellow-rump high in an oak tree. It is still the delicate season, but the leaves are expanding fast. The oaks dangle rose and gold flowers while tiny, perfect leaves sprout from above.
May 8. I was out by 8:30 a.m., still sore and stiff and moving slowly, but able to walk. I heard yellow-billed cuckoos, great-crested flycatchers, and scarlet tanagers when I walked up First Field Trail. A red-tailed hawk, its breast shining white, sat on the Sapsucker Ridge side of First Field, but it flew off as I approached.
Inside the exclosure, two pink lady slipper plants had germinated, but only one had a flower stem. Tent caterpillars have erupted as the cherry leaves have unfurled. I watched a Baltimore oriole poke into a couple as I crossed the powerline right-of-way.
Two wood thrushes foraged on First Field Trail. An ovenbird sang behind me as I sat on Turtle Bench. Black flies buzzed around my face.
By the time I made it up to Alan’s Bench at 9:30, it was warm and the view hazy. In the few days I’ve been down, several shades of green, from gold to emerald, have softened the mountains as the trees have leafed out. In the distance, a hooded warbler sang and close by a chipping sparrow buzzed and trilled. Once again the wood frogs have lost out. The largest vernal pond is almost gone.
One of the dozens of perfoliate bellworts along Sapsucker Ridge Trail bloomed. Finally, I saw a “chit-banging” scarlet tanager at the edge of the Far Field. I also saw and heard a snorting buck. Tiger swallowtails flapped past as I sat on a log at the edge of the field.
The small deer exclosure was jam-filled with Canada mayflowers. Clumps of Solomon’s seal waved above them. Striped and red maple, hickory and cherry saplings had leafed out. Blackberry vines grew in one corner and wherever they stuck out of the fence they had been nipped off. A deer track runs right beside and around the fence so not much grows outside of it in this flat area of the mountain.
Celandine bloomed on the Far Field Road bank. Early saxifrage still blossomed. Wild azalea was out along Laurel Ridge Trail and I stopped to breathe in its sweet aroma. A bumblebee worked over every opened blossom.
May 9. I walked down the road to look for wildflowers and birds. Two returns soon greeted me–Acadian flycatcher and red-eyed vireo. All the wildflowers were up, including Indian cucumber-root by the dozens. Gaywings and wild geranium bloomed full tilt. A haze of green on every tree and shrub, the sun shining through and setting the forest alight as it wakes the trees from their long fall, winter, and early spring sleep and brings back the singing birds from their sojourns in the tropics.
Eight Jack-in-the-pulpits bloomed on the side of the charcoal hearth. I heard worm-eating warblers, which have been back for several days, many Acadian flycatchers, black-throated green and black-and-white warblers, wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and Louisiana waterthrushes as I proceeded down the road. I found clintonia leaves out in several places but few flower stalks. Red elderberry shrubs flowered. Kidney-leaf buttercups and foamflower were out, along with smooth yellow, sweet white, and long-spurred violets and bumblebees foraged on foamflowers and smooth, yellow violets.
As I sat on Waterthrush Bench, I heard a northern parula singing high up on Laurel Ridge.
I caught a ride back up with Bruce, because I am not yet fully recovered, and as we walked down the driveway from the car, Bruce talking and me listening to what sounded neither like a brown thrasher or gray catbird imitating birdsongs, a northern mockingbird flew off, flashing his semaphore-like white and gray wings. That’s only about the third time we’ve ever seen a mockingbird up here even though they are common in the valley yards.
May 10. Clearing but humid weather that the birds love. On Greenbrier Trail, practially every bird species possible sang and called, but I had very few glimpses because the underbrush and trees have leafed out thickly. So once again it’s ear-birding.
While trying to track a new song, a Swainson’s thrush flew silently up from the underbrush and allowed me a good, long look, front and back. It had very few light spots on its upper breast, which made it a first-year bird, according to Sibley.
Dogwoods bloomed and I found a ninth jack-in-the-pulpit on top of the charcoal hearth. The bishop’s cap has spread along the stream bank along Pit Mound Trail.
May 11. I had a beautiful view of a singing worm-eating warbler high in a tree along Laurel Ridge Trail, his head thrown back, his beak open, his small body vibrating. Next, I heard the first eastern wood pewee of the season. And then a blackburnian warbler.
Mother’s Day flowers
May 13. Thirty-nine degrees at dawn and clear. A perfect Mother’s Day.
The first dame’s rocket bloomed in Margaret’s yard. The birds still sang, though not as many as yesterday, as I walked through the now-green tunnel of Ten Springs Trail. Even the oaks were fully out in most places, and birds sang as disembodied voices.
Coming down Ten Springs Extension, I found wild geranium in full bloom, a fading perfoliate bellwort, a couple jack-in-the-pulpits, and the long-spurred violets still out. So too were the purple trilliums and foamflowers. My Mother’s Day flowers were in the hollow, freely given by nature to all who would look. New clintonia plants had emerged just above the big pull-off. That flower too is spreading, although this year its leaves are many, its blossoms few. Sarsaparillas displayed their greenish-white balls of blossoms and the bells of Solomon’s seal dangled beneath their green leaves. Wood betony flowered along Margaret’s access road and slope, although again there were more leaves than gold-tipped brown flowers.
May 14. The lilacs are spectacular and perfume our way around the yard, as well as acting as attractants to butterflies and hummingbirds. Large beds of deep blue ajuga grow amidst the tall, green lawn.
I counted lady slippers and found 45 and only one had possibly been nipped. I also had a good view of a singing blackburnian warbler and another of a hooded warbler and heard a couple black-throated blues. And I saw the male sharpie as soon as I circled around the bottom edge of the spruce grove. Where was he on the IMBD?
Mayapples bloomed at the Far Field thicket. At least sixteen celandine plants bloomed on the Far Field Trail roadbank.
May 15. “Che-bec, che-bec,” a least flycatcher called in the yard. The pair of Baltimore orioles looked over a nest-building site, while the flickers peered out of their nest hole in the walnut tree.
Along Greenbrier Trail, the redstarts were in full throat, probably because the females had returned. Two male scarlet tanagers tussled briefly, and then I spotted a female nearby. Best of all, I saw and heard a hyped-up cerulean warbler.
Later, I looked up in time to see a chimney swift flying overhead. That makes three resident migrant birds–least flycatcher, cerulean warbler, and chimney swift–that I didn’t get on the IMBD!
Walking up along the stream from Pit Mound Trail, I found many Indian cucumber-roots, Solomon’s plume, and even a few maple-leaved viburnums. Acadian flycatchers and red-eyed vireos sang along the stream. Canada mayflower and Solomon’s plume bloomed. I also found at least one young red elderberry shrub, a small sign that the native shrub layer may be expanding.
Even though I was only a few yards from the road, it was as if I were in a different world, an earlier, greener world of sparkling water and singing birds, an Eden that probably did exist before humans discovered it.
The usual patch of early ragwort bloomed along the road above the forks. Even though I have seen great patches of this flower in other places, it seems to remain only in a small patch in one place here.
I checked the tiny pond for any sign of wood frog tadpoles and all I saw, as I approached, was one spring peeper that leaped into the algae-covered water. I spent a while trying to clear off at least some of the algae with my walking stick and flinging it on the bank in an effort to see the water. Still, I found little sign of any life, including the usual water striders. Very disappointing. I think the algae has formed because there is no longer a trickle of water that keeps flowing into and out of it that kept it pure.
A hot wind blew by mid-afternoon as the thermometer registered 90 degrees and we hovered indoors behind closed windows that had trapped the evening cool from last night.
Heaven on Earth
April 1. Forty degrees at dawn and overcast. But a flash of sunlight encouraged me to go outside before the expected rain. I was fully dressed, boots laced, umbrella hanging on my belt, when the heavens opened. April Fool, I thought, and prepared to spend the day inside, catching up on my writing. In the midst of the cold rain, the first daffodils opened.
April 2. As I set out on my morning walk up Guesthouse Trail, the sun penetrated the fog. In a few minutes it was clear and warm here. Not so in the valleys. They were filled up with fog that spilled over the lower ridges. Maybe that’s why the red-winged blackbirds flew up here to sing.
A winter wren sang briefly as I sat on Coyote Bench. I also heard the clear notes of a blue-headed vireo.
At the largest vernal pond, I found no sign of wood frogs, but on the pond bottom below a small clutch of eggs still floating in the water, I saw many more clutches of wood frog eggs.
Four hen turkeys ran across First Field Trail at the very same place I saw them the other day. Nature does repeat itself once in a while.
April 3. Sitting on Pit Mound Trail on Laurel Ridge, I watched a couple hermit thrushes fly silently downslope. One stopped to flip over leaves before continuing north.
Sitting on Shrew Bench, I watched a question mark butterfly on the ground, pumping its wings in the warming sun. Later, on Laurel Ridge Trail, a blue azure twinkled ahead of me like one of the wee fairies of Irish whimsey. A trailing arbutus bloomed and I knelt to sniff its sweet odor as I do every spring.
Coming back on Short Circuit Trail, I heard a long trill that sounded too high to be a chipping sparrow. I looked around and saw a pine warbler foraging and singing in the top of a tall white pine.
The thermometer hit 79 degrees by mid-afternoon, and more daffodils opened as the day progressed. I almost imagined I could see them opening so quickly did the blossoms appear. The forsythia was almost out too. The pink hyacinths, planted among the daylilies, were also blooming. Sitting outside on the veranda in the evening, I heard eastern towhees calling from several directions. At least one spring peeper also called.
April 4. Forty-four degrees at dawn, rain and fog. A male brown-headed cowbird and two females came into the feeder area. So did a fox sparrow, or perhaps I should say the fox sparrow.
At noon the fog thickened and then, in just a few minutes, the sun shone through it and blue sky appeared. As we ate lunch, we counted dozens of northern flickers in the yard, poking around in the ground like robins. A hen turkey also paraded past at the edge of First Field. Was she listening for a gobbler?
I headed over to Greenbrier Trail after lunch. At least two blue-headed vireos sang, and then, to my astonishment, a ruby-crowned kinglet sang. Usually, I don’t hear them until the middle of April.
Already the barberry shrubs, arbor vitae, and multiflora roses have greened up, and red maples are in full gold and red bloom. Garlic mustard has sprouted everywhere. A new study shows that it kills the soil fungi needed by maple and ash trees to grow. In front of a hedge of barberries was a cluster of native spicebushes in bloom. Natives mix with non-natives, Pennsylvania cress vs. garlic mustard, spicebush vs. barberry, red and striped maples vs. ailanthus, blackberry vs. multi-flora rose. What a mixture we have brewed.
At least all the birds are native, and they seem to have the intelligence to switch to new foods when they need to — for instance, those non-native berry-producers that have taken the place of our native shrubs that have been consumed by our overabundant deer.
April is a wonderful month for birdsong because it is a mixture of those that are staying with those that are leaving or merely migrating through such as the fox, white-throated and American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, ruby-crowned kinglets, and brown creepers.
But where are the Carolina wrens? They were here until the March cold and snowstorms. Then, as I was writing these very words in my notebook while sitting on a log, a winter wren came to within a couple feet of me, calling and bouncing up and down like a diminutive teeny-bopper. It was almost as if it was offering itself as a consolation prize for the loss of the Carolina wren. A strange coincidence.
I continued my walk and looked up to see a porcupine snoozing high in a tulip poplar tree. A red-tailed hawk called, but I couldn’t see it. Cardinals sang as the wind picked up and more ruby-crowned kinglets warbled and ended with their signature “Look at me, look at me, look at me.” Then I heard the “mew” of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, migrating through on its usual schedule.
Yet the old, dried, beige leaves of the beech trees still clung to the branches, and they shivered in the breeze like miniature ghosts of winter past. New leaves should be pushing them off soon.
On a hunch, I crossed the stream at Pit Mound Trail and found the first few delicate yellow round-leaved violets in bloom. Then I sat next to the rushing stream to catch those invigorating ions. Ah! I still believe heaven on earth is an Appalachian spring! Talk about resurrection. I see it all about me and wish only to live through many more springs. To go from barren to overflowing in only a couple months continues to be awe-inspiring. And yet I usually sit alone. Even people who are retired only celebrate spring from their car windows. More and more people have less and less contact with the natural world in our videophiliac country. Even those who live in the country are more wedded to their riding lawn mowers and barbecue pits and rarely venture into the pockets of wildness beyond their acres of closely-cropped grass.
The first hepatica flower bloomed on the road bank.
Return to Winter
April 5. Twenty-four degrees at dawn and overcast. A sudden plunge back into winter and we spent the day in State College. Off-and-on snow showers melted on the warm ground and roads.
At home I looked out to see the birds mobbing the feeders and ground beneath them. The fox sparrow was still here, as well as chipping, field, tree, song, and white-throateds, but what was that sparrow? It’s head was a deeper chestnut than that of a chipping sparrow. It had gray instead of white on either side of the chestnut patch on top of its head. A black line ran through its eye. It had a pale patch below its throat and no spot in the middle of its chest like a song sparrow, only blurry streaking. Its wings were a reddish-brown. Could it be a swamp sparrow? Indeed it was. And I had learned another one of those LBJs or little brown jobs.
April 6. Twenty-two degrees at dawn and snowing this Good Friday. The snow covered the daffodils and hyacinths as more than two inches fell. The swamp sparrow was back, along with all the other sparrows and goldfinches.
I sighed and put my winter clothes on again. Then I set out into the bright sunlight in mid-morning. Would the birds I heard on April 4 still be around? Yellow-bellied sapsuckers called in Margaret’s Woods, ruby-crowned kinglets sang and foraged on Greenbrier Trail. A towhee called once. Yes, they were still all here.
April 7. I found the same birds at the Far Field as I had during yesterday’s walk in the opposite direction–several brown creepers and hermit thrushes, a quiet phoebe insect-catching from a limb, a pair of bluebirds, towhees calling and singing from all directions, a couple yellow-bellied sapsuckers, winter wrens wherever I went, and once I heard a portion of a ruby-crowned kinglet song. I also scattered a herd of six deer.
Mostly sunlight except for a snow shower that caused a complete white-out of Sinking Valley, but it didn’t amount to much when it reached the mountaintop. This unseasonable cold has spread throughout the East and Midwest and as far south as Georgia, blackening peach tree blossoms and threatening other fruit crops as well. Luckily, our own local fruit orchard owners are smart enough to plant several varieties of peaches, apples, strawberries, etc. so that they bloom at different times and luckily it hadn’t been warm enough in our area to bring out the tree blossoms yet.
I sat at the Far Field and soaked up as much sunshine as possible while the wind howled over Sapsucker Ridge.
Steve reported seeing a silent Louisiana waterthrush near the forks. Right on time despite the weather.
A single opossum came to the feeder area as it has most evenings. I always talk to it when I bring the feeders in, and it seems to be getting used to my voice, because instead of running off, it glances up briefly and then goes back to eating.
April 8. Twenty-six degrees at dawn and windy, dropping to 23 degrees by 9:00 a.m. when I went out for my walk. What a gloomy, gray, cold Easter. Daffodils laid on the ground and I wondered if they would resurrect after this incredible cold? The birds were almost silenced at dawn and afterward.
Once I heard a winter wren calling and half of a blue-headed vireo song, but mostly the woods were silent. Sitting on Shrew Bench, I did hear the faint gobbles of a turkey.
April 9. Another new inch of snow. By 9:00 it was 31 degrees, a few flakes still sifted down, but the sun occasionally shone. Birds mobbed the feeder area, including six mourning doves. One kept up his dolorous song as I headed across a mostly silent First Field and into an equally quiet Margaret’s Woods. But on Greenbrier Trail, a winter wren sang as I sat hidden back in the brush. I also heard a towhee, ruby-crowned kinglets, and a blue-headed vireo. A trio of black-capped chickadees landed on the witch hazel shrub in front of me, “dee-deeing” within a couple feet of me and flitting above my head.
A gobbler answered the hen calls I made with the box caller, and although his gobbles came closer over the next 20 minutes or so, I never saw him.
April 10. The mountain laurel looked pitiful even on the powerline right-of-way and semed to be in a free fall. Leaves on whole shrubs have turned brown and dropped. More and more gray bodies, contorted, naked branches bereft of leaves.
On Guesthouse Trail many of the small rhododendron shrubs have been recently stripped of leaves by the deer.
At the Far Field, I listened to a ruffed grouse drumming in the woods beyond, but I could not sneak close enough to see him. Eastern towhees called, along with a ruby-crowned kinglet or two. Once in a while a dim sun penetrated the clouds. When it did the birds activated. A bluebird sang briefly. Then a cardinal, followed by a ruby-crowned kinglet. I’ve never heard as many ruby-crowns as I have this spring. Usually they move on after a week or so.
See also my recent post on the Plummer’s Hollow blog.