I See Change

Everyone sees change over their lifetime. I certainly have.

The main house and, to the left and partially hidden by some trees, the guest house (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The main house and, to the left and partially hidden by some trees, the guest house (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

This year was my 45th living on our mountaintop property in central Pennsylvania. My husband Bruce and I also celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary. The three sons we raised on this mountain are middle-aged and we are old.

During our tenure here we have seen many changes, both good and bad. Now that the trees are leafless these bleak December days, every time we drive our mile-and-a-half hollow road, we notice how close to death the hemlocks are that line the stream.

Since we moved here in August of 1971, we have lost a couple tree species, first a scattering of butternuts, followed by American elms. Now our hemlocks and ashes are succumbing to the insects and diseases that have come from abroad.

Dead mountain laurel in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Dead mountain laurel in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Once Laurel Ridge had a thick understory of mountain laurel shrubs that provided nesting habitat for a variety of songbirds, especially wood thrushes, as well as cover for white-tailed deer. Every June we had a glorious wild garden of blooming mountain laurel that stretched for miles on the ridge, but now many of the shrubs are twisted skeletons with few or no leaves clinging to them, dying or dead of a leaf fungus.

Other native shrubs and tree saplings are white-tailed deer preferred food, and like well-trained botanists, they are able to tell the natives from the invasives, rejecting Japanese stiltgrass, barberry, privet, and garlic mustard, for instance, and browsing on maple-leaf viburnum, wild hydrangea, rhododendron, red-berried elder, oak, black gum, and flowering dogwood seedlings and other natives. Our son, Dave, encloses every native shrub and tree he plants in his yard and ours with a fence until they rise above deer level.

Orange jewelweed (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Orange jewelweed (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Those are the bad changes, but we still have over 200 species of wildflowers, 150 of which are natives. Wood nettle, which first appeared back in 2006 along our stream, has rapidly spread in the woods, creating a thick cover that keeps stiltgrass out. Jewelweed, also called touch-me-not, does the same where it is allowed to thrive. And the tree species that are still disease-free, including white and red oaks dating back to 1812, are growing larger every year.

Since we moved here, songbird numbers have been cut in half throughout the continental United States. Even though we provide nesting habitat for at least 71 songbird species, we have far fewer of most species, such as wood thrushes, or have lost golden-winged warblers despite perfect habitat at the edges of First Field.

Habitat loss both on their nesting and winter grounds has been and continues to be a major problem. In the heavily populated eastern United States, roaming domestic cats, window strikes, and lately the many wind installations on mountaintops and along the Great Lakes where the birds migrate are big killers of birds.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome (Photo by Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The wind farms are even worse for our dwindling bat population, especially our cave bats, which are already dying from the dreaded white-nose syndrome, brought here from Europe less than a decade ago where the bats have built up a resistance to the disease over many centuries. Not many people care about bats because they are ignorant of their amazing mosquito-killing abilities. Just last August our son Dave and his partner, Rachel, were lying out in First Field watching a meteor shower. Rachel is highly allergic to mosquito bites and was delighted that three bats continued to flutter above them eating mosquitoes.

Last summer I had the opportunity to educate one woman, who owns an old, Victorian mansion she has turned into a tea house and bed and breakfast, about the disease. She and her husband were tender-hearted enough to shoo the occasional bat out of their house instead of killing it but had no idea about the disease killing them. When I gave her the statistics though—99% of most bats dead in their hibernating caves and the disease spreading rapidly across the United States and Canada, she was appalled. When I added that a female bat has only one pup a year, she understood why most scientists believe it will be 500 years, if ever, that cave bats will recover the numbers they had before the disease, and that some of the already rare species, such as Indiana bats, soon may be gone forever.

The hacking tower on Haldeman Island in 1989 (Bruce Bonta photo)

The hacking tower on Haldeman Island in 1989 (Bruce Bonta photo)

Still, through all this litany of loss I have seen terrific success stories here in Pennsylvania over the years, and many are due to the work of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Back in the nineteen seventies, eighties, and even nineties, seeing ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles were rare and treasured experiences. I remember visiting Haldeman Island and watching the workers feed the young bald eagles they were raising before releasing them in the hope that they would thrive and return to breed in Pennsylvania. I also talked with and watched biologists monitoring peregrine falcons breeding on bridges over the Delaware River.

Today you can watch peregrine falcons nesting in our cities on webcams and seeing osprey and bald eagles is possible in many areas of our state. A couple summers ago, while hiking at a nearby state park, Bruce and I watched an osprey catching fish in the lake. And a pair of bald eagles now nest at the other end of our mountain. This raptor-recovery from the DDT years has been an unexpected pleasure for those of us who sit on mountaintops in fall and watch a steady procession of them heading south.

A porcupine in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

A porcupine in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

When we moved here, we observed what we thought were a wide variety of mammals—woodchucks, gray squirrels, eastern chipmunks, porcupines, raccoons, gray and red foxes, white-tailed deer, striped skunks, opossums and several vole, mice, and shrew species.

Then, in 1983 we had our first black bear sighting and in 1989 our first eastern coyote. In this century both species have become far more common, breeding and living on the mountain year round. Bobcats have always been rare but present. Our sons saw one in the 1970s as they walked up our road from school, and I glimpsed another in January of 1990. I long for a better view of this elusive species, but several of our hunters sitting in their tree stands have had longer sightings of bobcats.

A beaver near our house in Plummer’s Hollow, February 2000 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

A beaver near our house in Plummer’s Hollow, February 2000 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Although we’ve never seen an otter here, despite the successful increase in their population due to Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists, during the winter of 2000 we did have an enterprising beaver swim up our flooded, first-order mountain stream a mile and a half, probably in search of a new home. This century we have also seen an increase in mink, long-tailed and short-tailed weasels, but I never suspected that we would see fishers on our property when I visited with the PGC researcher back in the nineties and she took me on a whirlwind tour of northcentral Pennsylvania where the PGC had recently released the animals.

The fishers were supposed to stay north of Interstate 80, but apparently they didn’t know this, so imagine my disbelief when I spotted one beside our stream in September of 2005. Since then our caretaker family and I have had several more sightings of these beautiful animals.

Our north-facing access road on January 28, 2008 (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our north-facing access road on January 28, 2008 (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

“I See Change” is the name of a website you can access and record the changes you have seen in your natural world. In addition to the changes I have seen in our plants and wild creatures, I’ve also noticed a change in our seasons. For more than two decades, all the leaves were off the trees by the first of November, and winter began near Thanksgiving with the first snowfall. Shortly after that, I did not drive down our north-facing access road until the beginning of March when it melted.

In this century, the oaks hold their leaves until mid-November, and cold weather and snow comes as late as Christmas or even early January. Then spring, instead of starting slowly in March, doesn’t start until April except for a warm spell that prematurely brings out tree blossoms and then freezes again. Finally, May warms up quickly to summer temperatures and early June ushers in true summer. Spring is my favorite season, and it seems to be shortened on either end, whereas autumn goes on and on often through rifle season and beyond.

Spring beauties (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Spring beauties (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Even though the seasons seem to have shifted by two weeks or more in both late fall and early spring, 1988 still remains the hottest summer we have ever experienced here and the winter of 2014-15 one of the coldest and snowiest despite its late start.

I know all this and more because of the detailed nature journal I’ve been keeping since 1971. I don’t only see change, I know change. On balance, our years here have been a joy despite the loss of tree species and bats and the increase in invasive plants. Every time I see a bear, coyote, fisher, or bald eagle, I am grateful for the positive changes. I look forward to more years of nature-watching and close encounters with the many creatures with which we share our mountain.

 

Food for Wildlife

After three lean years, our oak trees finally produced a bumper crop of acorns last September. Forewarned by hordes of blue jays screaming from the treetops as they plucked ripe acorns from the oaks, I had to be careful on our steep trails not to slide on the fallen nuts that were more hazardous than marbles.

grey squirrel

Grey squirrel eating an acorn (Juraj Patekar image on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still, not every section of forested Pennsylvania had a good acorn crop, despite predictions from folks that should know better. Dr. Marc Abrams, a forestry professor at Penn State says there’s “no way to predict it,” calling a heavy mast year “one of the amazing mysteries in nature that we still do not have a handle on.”

Dr. Warren G. Abrahamson, a Bucknell University professor who conducted a long term study of acorn production from 1969 to 1996 with Jim Layne of the Archbald Biological Station in Florida, agrees, although he says that “the production of acorns definitely is not forecasting but hind casting the weather.” In their September 2003 report of their work they claimed that the size of the acorn crop each year is partly controlled by precipitation which affects acorns during different stages of development in prior years.

Other experts think that the group behavior of masting trees called synchrony most likely depends in part on the temperature during pollination in late April or May. Since oaks are wind-pollinated, meaning the wind must transfer pollen from staminate (male) to pistillate (female) flowers, a period of rain might disrupt the process.

For instance, a cold, wet spring in 2012 affected red oak production in 2013 because all the oaks in the black oak group (those with pointed lobes on their leaves) take two years to mature. Those in the white oak group (those with smooth lobes on their leaves) take only a year and would be affected by a late spring frost during pollination.

Still others believe that synchrony occurs as a way to outsmart nut predators by producing more nuts than the predators can eat, ensuring that at least some nuts will grow into trees. But whatever the causes, it is cyclic and occurs every three to five years.

On our dry mountaintop we have mostly chestnut oaks with an occasional white oak in the white oak group. Deer prefer these tastier acorns and squirrels eat them almost immediately because they spoil more quickly than those in the black oak group, which include scrub, black, northern red, and scarlet oaks here. Those acorns the squirrels store.

hickory nut

Hickory nuts form 10 to 25 percent of a squirrel’s diet in a good year (image by Peppysis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acorns are not the only hard mast fruit. Others include the squirrels’ favorite—hickories, especially pignut, mockernut, and shagbark—which consists of 10 to 25 % of their diets in a good year and ripen before acorns. But like oaks, as well as the other hard mast producers—American beeches and black walnuts—they are also wind-pollinated.

Hard mast is high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein and is important to at least 180 species of birds and animals in fall and winter, but since it is highly variable in production from year to year, wildlife must depend also on a wide variety of soft mast throughout spring, summer, and fall. These fleshy, perishable fruits high in sugar, vitamins, and carbohydrates include a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species.

Foresters and wildlife biologists, in fact, consider mast to be the woody plant fruits and browse of native trees, shrubs and vines even though the word mast comes from the Old English “maest” which meant the forest tree nuts on the ground that fattened domestic pigs and other animals.

A wide variety of soft mast allows many mammals and birds to survive the lean years of hard mast. Of course, there are always some nuts every year, but ever since the extinction of American chestnut trees which, because they were insect-pollinated and didn’t bloom until summer, reliably produced an excellent crop of nuts, wildlife has had to adjust to a feast or near famine hard mast situation.

Consequently, encouraging biologically diverse meadows and forests, stocked with native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species produces food for wildlife throughout the year. And diverse food leads to diverse wildlife, as we’ve discovered on our property.

Other examples of trees that are insect-pollinated and produce a huge number of seeds every year as well as foliage, twigs and bark are red and striped maples. Striped maple, also called moosewood or goosefoot, has fruit that matures in early fall and is eaten by ruffed grouse, rodents, and songbirds. In addition, it produces browse for deer and bark for rabbits and beaver.

Elk eat the buds, foliate, twigs and bark of red maple, songbirds gorge on the seeds, and squirrels and mice store them for winter.

Basswood is another insect-pollinated tree, producing seeds squirrels and chipmunks consume while deer and rabbits browse its foliage.

The best of the soft mass fruit is that of wild black cherry trees. It fruits abundantly every third or fourth year in August and is pollinated by solitary bees. Seventy bird species feed on the fruit including grouse and wild turkeys. Black bears, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and mice relish the dark cherries.

witch-hazel fruit and flowers

Witch-hazel fruit and flowers (Image by Rodger Evans on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The fruit of sassafras trees, which is high in fat, is eaten by turkeys, bobwhite quail, black bears, pileated woodpeckers and gray catbirds. Rabbits and deer browse its twigs, black bears like its stems and deer its leaves. Despite its popularity, we have many sassafras trees in our forest.

Common witch-hazel, which flowers in late fall, develops woody capsules the following spring and summer. Those capsules contain a pair of shiny, black hard-coated seeds that shoot out in autumn before the next flowering. But squirrels, turkeys, quail, and grouse go after them, especially if the acorn crop fails. Deer browse heavily on witch-hazel, but it persists in growing above the deer line here.

Common spicebush (my personal favorite) produces brilliant spicy red fruits eaten by grouse, pheasants, and quail. It also provides shoots for rabbits and browse for deer, but it too survives and thrives, especially in wet areas along our stream. Our son Dave has planted it as an attractive shrub in our yard and his.

Both red-berried elder, which blooms the same time as the invasive barberry, has red berries available for birds in June or early July, although it only lives on steep slopes here because deer are fond of its browse. Deer also like common elderberry. It blooms in late June or early July and hangs heavy with clusters of dark purple berries favored by birds and humans in late August.

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit (Kelly Colgan Azar photo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Staghorn sumac is making a recovery on our property, living on the sunny edges of meadows and forests. Blooming in late June and early July, its greenish-yellow, fragrant flowers morph into bright red, cone-shaped clusters of fruit that last through the winter, providing food for squirrels, songbirds, grouse, pheasants, turkeys and quail. Deer and rabbits browse on this shrub as well.

Wild berries are a popular summer food. First come the lowbush blueberries as early as mid-June on our powerline right-of-way, followed by the huckleberries. Black bears are particularly fond of them, but so are songbirds, grouse, chipmunks, pheasants, and mice.

Black raspberries ripen in early July and blackberries in early August. Both are incredibly important fruit for songbirds, skunks, opossums, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears, while rabbits like their cover and rabbits and deer browse on their stems. Of course, the wildlife must also compete with me, especially in the blackberry patches.

Opossum eating wild grapes

Opossum eating wild grapes (photo by pverdonk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Greenbrier of several species has bluish-black berries eaten by songbirds and gamebirds and deer browse them. They browse wild grapevines too, but wild grapes are among the most important and valuable food for wildlife including songbirds, gamebirds, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. The vines provide winter shelter for animals and birds too. I remember one winter when the hard mast failed and deer spent the season among the grapevines of the Far Field thicket, yarding up like they do in northern New England.

My list of native trees, shrubs and vines could be greatly expanded. In other parts of Pennsylvania, particularly south of us, still other wildlife food, such as common papaws, are important. But diversity remains the key to providing abundant wildlife food, even in years when hard mast is scarce.

Gamelands Tour

view of SGL#108

view of SGL #108 on last October’s tour (all photos in this post by Bruce Bonta)

I’ve always preferred to walk rather than drive through the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. Still, I was tempted last October by a driving tour in nearby State Gamelands #108 and persuaded my husband, Bruce, to accompany me. It was a lovely autumn day when we found our way to a gamelands access road in Cambria County, not far from Prince Gallitzin State Park, and lined up behind a couple dozen cars.

At the gate we were greeted and handed several information sheets and a map that designated stops along our 7.5 mile, self-guided, one-way tour. We also tested our outdoor knowledge along the route by guessing the identity of marked trees and wildlife mounts including fisher, mink, ring-necked pheasant, black bear, barred owl, and bald eagle.

But we especially enjoyed stopping and talking to the agency personnel. I noticed the incredible abundance of pokeweed and staghorn sumac along the road and was assured by Joe McAnulty, one of the Food and Cover crew members, that they purposely widen roadsides to let in the sun, which encourages the growth of wildlife food, for example, the pokeweed and sumac, as well as blackberries and sassafras. They also allow wild grapevines to grow.

“We manage for animals,” McAnulty assured us.

With the help of special machines, also on display, they create wildlife openings in the forest to support native plants, legumes, or annual grains. They had just finished a prescribed 87-acre burn to encourage scrub oak to grow, which almost always produces a large crop of acorns every fall. In addition to the 23,086 acres of SGL#108, four workers are responsible for managing the 23,000 acres of four other nearby gamelands, McAnulty told me.

At another stop, we talked to a couple law enforcement personnel who showed us the amazing array of tools they need to foil lawbreakers. A deer exclosure, a couple shelterwood cuts, and a vernal pond were also highlighted on our route, but I was particularly eager to see a rehabilitated strip-mined area, which had been converted to a small-game and grassland nesting bird habitat.

Samara Trusso

Game Commission biologist Samara Trusso with short-eared owl habitat

There I talked to biologist Samara Trusso who told me that short-eared owls winter on the grasslands in February and March. This is important because there is a chance that they might breed there too, although so far no breeding has been recorded. The short-eared owl is one of Pennsylvania’s rarest breeding birds and is listed as endangered in the state. Pennsylvania is the farthest south this mostly circumpolar species nests and then only rarely.

Trusso also said that the rehabilitated strip-mined area provides grassy habitat for grassland birds because the sites have acidic, nutrient-poor soils that produce grasses and legumes and have a slower rate of plant succession. But she assured me that the 40% shrub component of this large acreage has no impact on grassland breeding birds that have been documented for the site—grasshopper, Savannah, and Henslow’s sparrows, northern harriers, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks.

That was our last stop, but we drove a couple more miles through the grasslands.

“This looks like harrier country,” I commented to Bruce just as a northern harrier flew up and over the grasslands.

Then, as the area grew more shrubby and medium-sized conifers, including larch and red pine, as well as deciduous trees provided more cover; two cock ring-necked pheasants strolled out in front of our car and fought. It seemed a fitting end to what had been a worthwhile tour and one that has been given every fall except for a year when it snowed.

wildlife opening on SGL #108

wildlife opening on SGL #108

To my surprise, we emerged at a gate on State Route 865 near Blandburg at the top of the Allegheny Front, a mere 26 miles from our home. I immediately made plans to return and see the breeding grassland bird species. Snow in late winter foiled my attempts to hike in and see the wintering short-eared owls, but one lovely Sunday in late June, hoping to see the documented grassland breeding birds, we parked at the Blandburg entrance and hiked back the way we had driven on the auto tour. Bruce was armed with gameland maps he had gotten off the web and had plotted out a circular route for us.

The first couple miles, amid the conifers and deciduous trees, we heard common yellowthroats, field sparrows, and song sparrows. But then, alternating with the singing of song sparrows, I heard the dreamy, lisping tsit-tsit-tsit-teee-taay of a Savannah sparrow. He remained hidden in the shrubs, but his song was unmistakable. A few minutes later, I heard the thin, dry buzzy tumble of notes of a grasshopper sparrow. He too remained out of sight in the shrubs.

Sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

We passed a large field white with daisies and heard a common yellowthroat sing both his familiar “witchity” song in addition to one of the less common variations of his song. A sudden breeze carried turkey vultures and a red-tailed hawk past. The hawk was then sent on its way by several red-winged blackbirds.

Eventually we reached the largest open section of grassland. The sun was hot and bright, and already it was late morning. I began to wonder if I would see any of the grassland birds. And then our luck changed. A Henslow’s sparrow sat in a dead shrub near the road and sang his quiet tsi-lick hiccup of a song. He was so close that we could watch him open his beak and sing over and over. I noted his short tail, flat, olive-colored head, big pale bill, finely striped breast, and reddish wings through my binoculars before he flew away.

Henslow’s sparrows are found mostly in the western part of Pennsylvania on rehabilitated strip-mined areas because they like a buildup of dead litter and perennial stalks, according to Andrew M. Wilson in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. The State Wildlife Action Plan lists the Henslow’s sparrow as a species of High Concern because we have about nine percent of the world population. This native of the tallgrass prairie has lost much of its habitat to agriculture in the Midwest.

I was especially pleased to see favorites of mine—bobolinks that rose from a couple shrubs beside the road, the three males scolding, their buff-yellow napes and white wingbars a striking contrast to their black bodies. Then a brown-backed female with a brown stripe on her head joined the agitated males.

timber rattlesnake coiled to strike

the timber rattler that Bruce insisted on photographing

At the same time I noticed a timber rattlesnake crossing the gravel road in front of us. Bruce rushed up to snap several photos before it slid off into the field, causing still more anxiety on the part of the bobolinks. We watched them for as long as we could as we continued our hike past the grassland. Just as I was lamenting that I hadn’t heard or seen an eastern meadowlark, a male flew up from the middle of the field, flashing his yellow chest and throat, the latter with its black V necklace. Both the bobolinks and the eastern meadowlarks prefer to nest in hayfields, the bobolinks particularly in fields at 2,000 feet on the Allegheny Plateau. But early mowing has led to the demise of many young birds and so this high-altitude unmowed field is of great importance to those species.

From the top of the open grassland, we had a view in every direction encircled by mountains and forest. Despite the dry day, it was hot in the grassland, and gratefully we descended a trail down to a series of forested ponds. We sat on rocks beside one pond to eat our lunch. At another pond a female wood duck with her ducklings swam into cattail cover when they saw us. Singing woodland songbirds included wood and hermit thrushes, black-and-white and black-throated green warblers, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings and indigo buntings.

Looking down on still another large pond from a small planting of red pines, we flushed a great blue heron. A ruffed grouse with half-grown young flew from the edge of the woods.

We spotted the first monarch butterfly of the season nectaring on yellow hawkweed, but it was near large areas of common and poke milkweeds growing beside the access road. That was where it would no doubt lay its eggs because monarch caterpillars only eat the leaves of milkweed species.

The last half-mile of our six-and-a-half mile hike was along State Route 865 where we saw and heard our first sign of people since we had parked our car. We were impressed by the remote peace and lack of even one piece of trash on this section of the gamelands. It was as far from the madding crowd as any place near our home—a prairie on a mountaintop where increasingly rare grassland birds thrive.

April Songster

Field sparrow singing by Dave Govoni

Field sparrow singing by Dave Govoni (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)

Sometime in late March or early April, the first male field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) of the season sings his long down-slurring whistle that ends in an accelerating trill. Soon he is joined by other returning males, and our 37-acre First Field rings with their lovely songs. Even in a dawn chorus of residents and migrants—dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, song sparrows, white-throated sparrows, blue-headed vireos, eastern towhees, and black-capped chickadees—the song of field sparrows stands out.

Not only do field sparrows start singing early, but they continue until at least the middle of August, only taking short breaks after pairing up with mates. Once the females begin incubating their eggs, males resume singing probably because such singing indicates their territorial holdings.

Their familiar song is referred to as their “simple song” by ornithologists, but there is nothing simple about it until you hear another quite different song as I did when walking across the field one morning. I was puzzled by it, but finally I spotted a singing field sparrow. He was singing an entirely different song, his “complex” or “dawn” song, which turned out to be the reverse of his “simple” song. It began with a trill of short notes and was followed by down-slurring whistles. Apparently, this is his more aggressive song sung at dawn or when interacting with other males over territorial rights.

field sparrow by Kelly Colgan Azar

Field sparrow by Kelly Colgan Azar (CC BY-ND)

Although field sparrows over-winter in some areas of Pennsylvania, notably the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and river valleys in the Ridge and Valley, here on our mountain in the west central part of the state, we see our first field sparrow at our feeders in mid-to-late March. His white eye-ring and bright pink bill and legs distinguish this rusty, brown-backed bird from other sparrow species.

Both our First and Far fields host these birds because they have the shrubby, old field habitat field sparrows prefer. According to a long term study (1987 to present) of field sparrow habitat in Lackawanna County by Dr. Michael Carey, field sparrows favor fields that are open but have scattered shrub and wood vegetation, in Carey’s case, honeysuckle, dogwood, Rosa and Viburnum species, and in our case black locust saplings, blackberry, a few autumn olives, and a scattering of multiflora rose and Japanese barberry along its edges.

Furthermore, field sparrows will occupy an unmowed hayfield the first year after it has been mowed and has a cover of grasses and other forbs mainly goldenrod. Over the next ten years, their numbers will increase as shrubs and other small woody vegetation cover 30% of a field and then they will slowly decrease until the field has been unmown for 30 years. At that point, it no longer will suit field sparrows because it will be overgrown with trees and shrubs.

field sparrow nest by Mike Allen

Field sparrow nest by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

In summary, Carey found that fields eight to 11 years old after mowing produced the most field sparrow nests. As the fields neared 25 years of age, field sparrow territories were held only for a short time either by a male that failed to attract a mate or by a couple that lost a nest and left in the middle of the season.

Although our First Field has not been mown for more than 20 years, woody vegetation has not taken over because my husband, Bruce, has been hand-pruning the black locust saplings. Thus, it has remained 37 acres of mostly grasses and other forbs, especially goldenrod and asters.

Carey also found that many male field sparrows are homebodies. Even though their field habitat is no longer optimal, older birds that have nested in a particular field return each spring and defend their territory even, in one case, while it was being mown. But their offspring leave their natal home and search for their own optimal breeding area.

The best field sparrow habitat, though, according to Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas survey, is reclaimed surface mine areas in the Pittsburgh Low Plateau Section, which had the highest number of breeding field sparrows. Altogether, the atlas survey found 210,000 singing males. While that sounds like a lot of field sparrows, their population size has declined 3% a year since Breeding Bird Surveys began in 1966. For that reason, we manage our First Field as field sparrow habitat and look forward to their return each spring.

Field sparrow nestlings - about 4 or 5 days old

Field sparrow nestlings – about 4 or 5 days old by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

Ten to 20 days after males arrive, the females, which look like the males, appear. Most likely they are not the same females the males mated with in previous years, but most will remain faithful to one another during the breeding season. They pair within a couple days and begin mating while the female chooses a nest site and builds a nest constructed of grasses and tucked in grass clumps or at the base of shrubs. It takes her five to eight days with the help of her mate who closely accompanies her and occasionally offers her nesting material.

Shortly after the nest is constructed, she lays two to five white or pale green spotted eggs and begins incubating after the last one is laid, although she may delay several days if the weather is cold. Most eggs are laid between May 3 and July 27 in Pennsylvania, but later nestings never have more than two to three eggs. They are also built higher in shrubs or saplings as the season progresses.

It takes 11 to 12 days of incubating before the chicks hatch, usually all on the same day. Born naked and helpless, their eyes open at four days. By seven to eight days of age they can leave their nest but remain in the low vegetation until they are 13 to 14 days old when they can fly short distances, but their parents continue to feed them. At last, they are off on their own when they are 26 to 34 days of age.

Throughout this period, the parents feed them a diet of almost exclusively arthropods. In Pennsylvania Carey reported that of 1,853 food items he examined, 80% were butterfly and moth caterpillars, 10% adult flies and bees, 6% katydids, 3% adult moths, and 1% spiders.

Field sparrow nestlings - 9 days old

Field sparrow nestlings – 9 days old by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

Of course, both eggs and nestlings are often eaten by predators, most commonly black rat snakes, but Carey also found instances of eastern garter snake predation. Possible mammalian predators include chipmunks, red and gray foxes, weasels, skunks, mink, raccoons, and opossums. Blue jays, house wrens, and American crows are proven bird predators on field sparrows.

After a loss to predators, a female begins laying eggs in a new nest she has quickly constructed a mere five days later. When the first nest is successful, she begins laying eggs in a new nest six to 20 days after the young fledge. Still, only about 40% of nests fledge young.

Field sparrow fledgling by Seabrooke Leckie

Field sparrow fledgling by Seabrooke Leckie (CC BY-NC-ND)

Once on their own, the immature birds flock together and may select their breeding habitat before their autumn migration. They also begin to expand their food sources from wholly insect to grass and forb seeds which sustain them through the winter months.

In addition, they are learning their hauntingly beautiful songs from those males they hear on their natal grounds. They perfect their songs on their wintering grounds in January and February and modify them the following spring to match those of nearby neighbors. Then, once again, I enjoy a choir of field sparrows sing as I walk the Butterfly Loop in First Field.