A Pandemic Year

December is my least favorite month. I used to call it the “freezing rain” month. But lately it has been giving me more varied weather from warm and sunny to cold rain, freezing rain, and snow.

Holding a maitake, also known as a hen-of-the-woods mushroom

Holding a maitake, also known as a hen-of-the-woods mushroom (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Since I write my columns four months ahead of time, I’m writing this one during the extreme drought and heat of August and wondering what December 2020 will bring.

After being “locked down” here since early March, I was not looking forward to late fall and winter. We’ve been living on our central Pennsylvania mountain since August of 1971 and most winters have been a challenge during the best of times.

Now, with the pandemic raging, these are the worst of times that my husband, Bruce nd I never imagined during our younger years. But with Bruce at 79 with Parkinson’s disease, I must remain fit enough to take over more chores than ever, aided by our caretakers and our two sons—Dave and Mark—who are sometimes here and sometimes not.

Mark and Paola in the forsythia patch near the house

Mark and Paola in the forsythia patch near the house

Dave, unable to join his wife, Rachel, in London because of the pandemic, put in a large, fenced and mulched vegetable garden. He also did most of our food shopping, while Mark and his wife, Paola, did our banking, mail and drugstore pick-ups, and handled some of our larger property issues.

But by December, Mark and Paola may be off on new jobs, and Dave on a plane to the United Kingdom as soon as they open their country to Americans. Then it will be up to me to shop and handle all the other business our sons have been doing for us.

Steve and Zhouyue, “Joy,” at their wedding ceremony in China

Steve and Zhouyue, “Joy,” at their wedding ceremony in China

Our oldest son, Steve, is teaching English in an American-run school in Shanghai and he, his Chinese Christian wife, Joy, and daughter Elanor shared a one-room apartment during the pandemic there. He warned us via Skype to wear masks whenever we left the mountain, claiming it was the only way to avoid COVID-19 as he and his family had done.

Furthermore, Mark, Dave, and Paola lived in the guesthouse and only visited us outside on our veranda and six feet apart. Our other granddaughter, Eva, who lives and works in NYC, along with her boyfriend Geoff, also visited us outside and camped in a tent beside the barn. But once winter sets in, we will greet visitors on the veranda bundled up in our winter coats and hats. Already there have been days when such visits were a freezing challenge. However, if this winter is as warm as last winter, it should be fairly easy to survive and thrive.

Birds arrived in mid-February 2020 that usually arrived in mid-March and we were ready for an early spring. Instead, March blew in cold and we were faced with trying to avoid COVID-19. No more weekly food shopping, library visiting, and lunch in a restaurant in State College. But spring had arrived and I had plenty to do, trails to take here, and birds and animals to observe. We were congratulating ourselves that it was spring and easy for us to get out. We expected by summer that the pandemic would be over.

In the meantime, the spring continued cold but the Neotropical migrants returned according to schedule. Wildflowers bloomed a little later than usual, but by May 10 even the trees had leafed out. That morning we had an unprecedented freeze. It was 25 degrees at dawn, and the herbs I had planted on my back porch had blackened beneath their plastic cover.

Pink lady’s slippers

Pink lady’s slippers (Photo by Dave on Flickr)

In the woods, the tender new leaves on saplings had also blackened and eventually dropped. Ferns too, especially sensitive ferns, looked dead. The buds on most of our pink lady’s slippers drooped and instead of our usual 30 to 40 blooms, I found four late in the month. It had paid to be a late bloomer for that species. The mayapples also were affected, and their flower buds dried up. Never had we had such a hard freeze so late in the spring.

The year had started out rainy and our vernal ponds continued to be full. In early March they were crowded with hundreds of calling and mating wood frogs. Although the ponds began dwindling in June, they finally dried up in July. We had gone from extreme rain and storm events to a drought that challenged Dave and his garden. Often, in July, we could hear distant storms, but all we received was a misty day.

Dave and Rachel at their wedding ceremony on Sapsucker Ridge

Dave and Rachel at their wedding ceremony on Sapsucker Ridge

I left the mountain once in late July for fruit from the Amish in the valley and wore a mask. To my sorrow, the Amish orchard had lost all their apricots and most of their plums and early peaches because of the May freeze. Our wild blueberry crop had also failed. But I was able to fill our freezer with the black raspberries and blackberries I picked in our field and extra produce from Dave’s garden. Our caretakers gifted us with eggs from their free-range chickens. And I knew they would begin hunting as soon as archery season opened in early October.

Despite the setbacks in our food supply, living here surrounded by the natural world kept us sane and content. Bruce managed a walk down our road most days. He also did veranda-sitting and sunporch bird-watching. I rarely missed a day of walking up and down our trails. Dave preferred hiking in late afternoon in search of plants or during the night to observe fireflies, while Mark was up with the birds.

Spined micrathena

Spined micrathena (Photo by Dave on Flickr)

Both sons made discoveries they shared with me since they ranged farther and on steeper trails. We all bushwacked during the summer because there were no ticks anywhere from June through September. I even sat on the ground, my back against a tree, something I hadn’t done since the ticks arrived 15 years ago. The drought meant there were few biting insects too. But the spined micrathena spiders spun their usual orb webs across the trails in August.

Over in China, Steve too found bird-watching therapeutic and ranged far and wide in search of more species to add to his lifetime bird list that he first started here when he was seven years old. And he occasionally sent videos of his adventures with the tiny hedgehogs that lived on the school grounds.

In early November I will put up our bird feeders, which we’ve done for the almost 50 years we’ve lived here. I will also continue my participation in Project FeederWatch, which I began in 1989, even though the last several years have not been too exciting. Maybe this winter the northern finches will appear. Or maybe they won’t.

An eastern towhee

An eastern towhee (Photo by Mark in Plummer’s Hollow)

Last December it was so mild one day that a chipping sparrow appeared with the juncos at the feeders. And an eastern towhee wintered off Bird Count Trail, a discovery I made in December. We averaged 12 to 15 species at our feeders most days and more gray squirrels than we liked. But because of the excessive rain and then the freeze this year, acorns have been scarce for three years, although the scrub oaks did produce this year. American tree sparrows were sparse but we usually had a couple at the feeders. Still, they were so few that we didn’t hear their melodic calls during the winter.

The mild winter was a boon to the Carolina wrens that sang through even the few cold days that we had. The local Canada geese flock flew over every morning at 10:30. At least one field sparrow joined the First Field flock of song sparrows and white-throated sparrows.

Mark’s photo of a hermit thrush in Plummer’s Hollow

Mark’s photo of a hermit thrush in Plummer’s Hollow

Coming home one evening with Eva late in December we saw an opossum at the gate, and on another night she and Geoff had a good view of a fisher running up our hollow road ahead of their car. I did my usual tracking in the frequent light snows and Mark his bird-watching. He not only found my eastern towhee but a hermit thrush as well above Bird Count Trail.

At the end of the month, I went for a walk in the silent forest at 2:30 in the afternoon. The light was the slanted light of winter but it was 65 degrees. I wondered if it was late fall, early spring, or an incredibly late Indian summer day. In any case, we enjoyed the halcyon winter days of 2020, unaware of the pandemic to come.

Now, in December of 2020, however long it takes before we can emerge from our self-imposed isolation, this pandemic year will be one to remember, a year when the natural world became even more of a solace than it has been for our family throughout our lifetimes.

 

Stony Garden

boulder field at Stony Garden

boulder field at Stony Garden

The request appeared in my junk mail from someone named Anna Mintz. She wanted to interview me about ringing boulder fields in Bucks County, most notably Ringing Rocks County Park, for a Russian television program. Somehow, she had discovered an article I had written about the park years ago.

I tried to discourage her, explaining that I was no expert on ringing boulder fields and that we lived four hours away from Bucks County and five from New York City where she was working. Undeterred, she rounded up a Ukrainian camera man and arrived at a parking area near our private access road in late February. My husband, Bruce, transported them and their equipment up our icy, north-facing hollow road.

Forewarned of their impending arrival, I reviewed my folder of pre-Internet information on ringing boulder fields. Their geological history began approximately 200 million years ago in the early Jurassic Age. Ancient Lake Lockatong had covered most of Bucks County and then had gradually filled with sediments that had hardened into shale. Molten rock within the earth was forced into the shale and hardened into a ledge of olivine diabase rock, sandwiched within the shale. But over the eons, the shale’s upper layer eroded and exposed the diabase. Subsequent severe freezing during the last Ice Age, when glaciers came close to but did not reach Bucks County, causing so-called periglacial conditions, broke the diabase into boulders.

another view of Stony Garden

another view of Stony Garden

Most boulder fields, such as the one at Hickory Run State Park, don’t ring, and researchers puzzled over why only the boulder fields in a thin line from northern Bucks County to nearby Montgomery County outside of Pottstown ring with melodious tones. Those tones inspired Dr. J.J. Ott, back in 1890, accompanied by a brass band, to play several musical selections at Ringing Rocks County Park. Current thinking is that they ring because of the density of the rocks and the high degree of internal stress that occurred when the molten rock came close to the earth’s surface and quickly cooled and solidified.

After cramming that information into my head I googled “ringing boulder fields” to see if there was any new information on them, and I discovered Ringing Rocks County Park was not the largest ringing boulder field in the East. That honor belongs to nearby Stony Garden on State Game Lands 157. According to a Wikipedia article, Stony Garden consists of “a series of disconnected boulder fields extending for almost half a mile,” making it much larger than the eight acre ringing boulder field at the park. It also mentioned a trail that leads into a portion of Stony Garden’s boulder field.

I was determined to explore this place and knowing that my younger brother, Gary, and sister-in-law Barb, who live in south Jersey, enjoy hiking in Bucks County, Bruce and I invited them to join us there last June 9. As it turned out, Gary had had a bad night due to illness, but he urged Barb to go.

Marcia and Barb at the edge of the boulder field

Marcia and Barb at the edge of the boulder field

It was an overcast day, threatening rain, when we met at nearby Nockamixon State Park for a picnic lunch. Afterwards, following a game lands map, we found the parking lot and Stony Garden Trail off Stony Garden Road. Although the trail is only a little less than half a mile long, it had its challenges. It was rocky and wet and we had to crawl over and under several fallen trees and cross a tributary of Haycock Creek. For those reasons, we were glad to be wearing sturdy hiking boots and carrying walking sticks.

It quickly became obvious why this place is called “Stony Garden.” I was reminded of a rock garden, so neatly did the wide variety of wildflowers, ferns and shrubs grow in the soil between the rocks, such as blooming partridgeberry and Indian cucumber-root, the leaves of spring-blooming jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger, bellwort, and mayapple and especially the fern rock polypody, which is common in rocky areas. Along the tributary, tall meadow-rue flowered. We found a few spicebushes, a nice maple leaf viburnum, and even a small American chestnut tree.

When we reached the boulder field, Barb and I didn’t feel sure-footed enough to venture out on the boulders so we stayed on its edges tapping on small rocks and making a little “music.” But Bruce climbed out on to the open boulders and made them ring, creating a range of tones by tapping them lightly with a hammer. He quickly found that the best sound came from thin rocks.

Gary and Patrick Myers at-Ringing Rocks County Park

Gary (r) and his son Patrick at Ringing Rocks County Park

Remembering my childhood, more than 60 years ago, I was sorry that Gary couldn’t make it. We had often visited Pottstown’s Ringing Hill Park near the home of my paternal grandparents, and he and my younger sister Linda had leaped fearlessly from rock to rock while I and my youngest brother, Hal, being less surefooted, stayed seated on a boulder at the edge. I knew he would have enjoyed seeing this awesome place and joining Bruce in the middle of the field.

But on our day at Stony Garden, while Bruce made the rocks ring, Barb and I listened to wood thrushes, red-eyed vireos, and ovenbirds singing in the forest of red and black oak, black birch, basswood, American beech and tulip trees surrounding the rocks. We also noticed small weathering potholes in some of the rocks and intense pitting in others, photos of which appear in the Wikipedia article.

Later, we learned that an even larger boulder field existed deep in the forest. Unfortunately, by the time we made our way back to the parking lot, we had no more time to explore the rest of SGL 157. And by then the threatening storm was spitting rain. But all of the game land’s 2000 acres on the northwest slope of Haycock Mountain, including the boulder fields, were obtained by the game commission back in 1920.

According to LMO John Papson, the boulder fields themselves make attractive homes for chipmunks and probably a selection of other rodents. Furthermore, the surrounding rocky terrain does not prevent the deer from using the area, and, in fact, we did see a few tracks in the wet areas. In addition, the game land supports a healthy population of black bears, bobcats, coyotes, red and gray foxes, gray squirrels, and raccoons as well as white-tailed deer. Although there are food plots and some timber cuts, for the most part the forest we saw around the ringing boulder field is typical of the rest of SGL 157.

Marcia, Gary and Barb

Marcia, Gary and Barb at Ricketts Glen State Park

Today people come from Philadelphia and nearby suburbs, Papson told me, to hunt and hike, and they find it difficult to believe that this island of a forested mountain has such a wide variety of wildlife, especially black bears and bobcats, but their presence and other wildlife have been captured on trail cams. Judging from the mature trees growing in the forest, providing ample food for wildlife, SGL 157 should be a great place to hunt. But during the summer, when hunting opportunities are limited, taking your family to climb and ring the rocks should provide precious memories for youngsters, just as it did for me and my three siblings.

In Memoriam: Gary Alan Myers (February 12, 1946-June 24, 2014). He loved to roam the hills and forests of Pennsylvania.

Elk Country Outing

elk watching the elk watchers

elk watching the elk watchers in Benezette, PA

As soon as we saw a sign telling us we were in Elk Country, five pairs of eyes scanned the landscape for a glimpse of the elusive elk. It was a cold, breezy day in early April and my husband Bruce and I, our son Dave and his English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, and our nine-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, were on the Quehanna Highway en route to Benezette, the well-known center of elk activity in Northcentral Pennsylvania.

These elk—Cervus elaphus—are the Rocky Mountain subspecies nelsoni, that were introduced by the Pennsylvania Game Commission between 1916 and 1926 in an area where the last of the canadensis subspecies had been exterminated in 1867 in Pennsylvania. Today our so-called North American elk are considered to be the same species as the Eurasian red deer. To further confuse matters, the European elk is our moose, which is why many biologists prefer the Algonquian name for elk “wapiti” meaning “white rump.” Currently in Pennsylvania there are approximately 900 elk.

Before we reached Benezette we stopped at the Marion Brooks Natural Area—number 3 on the Department of Conservation and Natural Resource’s Elk Scenic Drive map. We wanted to show Rachel the only state natural area named for a woman. As a citizen of nearby Medix, Brooks had been concerned about water quality in her area and helped to establish some of the first strip mine reclamation laws in the commonwealth. This 917-acre natural area is known for having the largest stand of white birches in Pennsylvania.

birch log at Marion Brooks Natural Area

birch log at Marion Brooks Natural Area

After a short walk among the birches, we returned to our car, eager to resume our Elk Country journey. When we reached Benezette, we followed signs through and out of town to Winslow Hill and on to the Elk Country Visitor Center. This impressive, new facility designed, as their website says, “As a place where visitors have an opportunity to see and experience these majestic animals year round in their natural habit” was the result of a public/private partnership between Pennsylvania’s DCNR and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, a group of donors that included private foundations, most notably the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Pennsylvania Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, organizations such as branches of the Safari Club International, and private individuals.

On that cold day, in what is called the Center’s Great Room, a large stone fireplace burned wood and threw out needed warmth. No doubt it was using some of the same trees cut years ago on the property that power the Center’s Austrian-built Bio-Mass Boiler. Large window let in ample light and provide excellent views of the grounds where elk sometimes graze.

The Center’s interpretive and interactive exhibits educate visitors not only about elk but also about the surrounding environment, wildlife conservation, and its green building design. Elanor especially enjoyed the interactive quiz on elk, and the gift shop, where she convinced her grandparents to buy her a nature journal and a 3-D elk book mark. Rachel purchased elk jerky and sausage to take back to her sons in England.

elk browsing

elk browsing

But enough of gift shops and displays. We wanted to see elk. We walked all three observation trails near the Visitor Center and had them to ourselves as sensible folks stayed inside and read about elk instead. We did find several piles of elk scat and tracks, which Rachel photographed, and admired designs lichens made on trees along the trails. Turkey vultures wheeled overhead and a robin ran across the lawn, both signs of spring despite the cold wind and snow pellets in the air.

Next we drove to all the elk viewing sites. Again, there was no sign of elk. By then we were hungry and found a café in Benezette where Rachel and Dave ordered elk burgers. As we lamented the lack of elk, a congenial white-haired gentleman in the next booth told us there were elk in town and gave us precise directions to a back street where they roamed.

At last we started seeing elk. Three sat together in one backyard chewing their cuds. One turned its head and gave us an excellent view. Three more grazed behind the Benezette Winery. Still in their winter coats, they were mostly a study in brown and beige. The tops of their heads were reddish-brown and the dark manes that hung to their chests looked like long shawls had been draped around their necks and shoulders. Their backs were beige and their legs a darker beige.

But Rachel, Dave, and Elanor were particularly fascinated by their light rump patches.

elk butts

elk butts

“Their butts are like targets,” Rachel said.

“They have heart-shaped butts,” Dave added.

“No, valentine butts,” Elanor countered.

Their little white beards were also a source of interest as they flapped about in the wind.

We were content to stay in the car and watch, but a couple at the winery walked toward them which put the elk on alert and as Dave said, “The elk are watching the watchers.” Finally, they ambled off into the woods, joining three elk that had stayed further away from the watchers.

At that point, we felt amply rewarded by our close encounters with these charismatic creatures. Instead of returning home on the Quehanna highway, we decided to follow the Elk Scenic Drive from Benezette to Renovo and then south to Snow Shoe to show Rachel more of the “Pennsylvania Wilds” as the area has been dubbed by the DCNR. And that’s when we really saw elk by the dozens, still in winter herds of both sexes, the larger males having shed their antlers.

waterfall along Elk Scenic Drive, Rt. 555

waterfall along Elk Scenic Drive, Rt. 555

In fields above the highway and beside the Bennett Branch of the Sinnemahoning Creek below the highway, we counted three elk in one field, eight in another, 11 in a third and five more on a field beyond Dent’s Run. Across the Bennett Branch elk grazed in backyards—nine in one yard, three in another. And they varied in color. Some had dark brown bodies and others were beige. Second only to moose in size, elk are five feet at the shoulder. The males or bulls head and body length averages eight feet and the females or cows seven and a half feet. The bulls weigh from 600 to 1,000 pounds and cows 400 to 600 pounds.

During the winter, like the smaller white-tailed deer, they are mostly browsers, feeding on woody stems, but if grasses, sedges, and forbs are available then, they’ll also graze on them. Many fields, especially in the viewing areas—Gilbert Farm or Winslow Hill, Dent’s Run, and Hicks Run—are planted with alfalfa, timothy, clover, and winter wheat.

elk sage

elk sage

Beyond Sinnemahoning, 14 elk and three white-tailed deer grazed on grass along the road, ending our elk-watching for the day. But from Benezette to our last sighting—25 miles in all—we had counted 53 elk, more than enough to convince us that elk are thriving in the Elk Country of Pennsylvania.

Later Rachel, in her inimitable British way, summed up her impression of elk on her Facebook page. “What weird creatures—the shaggy head and neck of a camelid, the beard of a Chinese sage, the body of a horse (with the gait of a rocking horse), the butt of a pig, and the tail of a severely docked dog. But delightful.”

All photos taken on April 5, 2014 by Rachel Rawlins.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Embedded above is the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s excellent 33-minute video, Pennsylvania Elk: Celebrating 100 Years, which presents not only the history of elk in Pennsylvania, but the PGC’s intense and continuing efforts to revitalize land and water devastated by clearcut logging followed by strip-mining before those strip-mining regulations that Marion Brooks and others fought for were passed in the 1960s. To see the before and after photographs of Winslow Hill, for instance, is to marvel at land reborn through the sweat and toil of many PGC employees and other interested parties.

The 114th Christmas Bird Count

Carolina Wrens by Dave Bonta

The Carolina wren pair that hung around the house in the winter of 2013-14

Last December I watched as day after day brought cold temperatures and more snow. We were expecting our son Dave’s English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, and her 14-year-old son, Alex, for the holidays, and Dave had already polished the sled runners.

Rachel, who lives in London, is interested in birds and arranged her schedule so she could be here for our Christmas Bird Count on December 21. It was the 114th CBC, as it’s fondly called, and is the longest running citizen science survey in the world.

Frank Chapman started the CBC back in 1900 to counter the competitive Christmas Side Hunt. On Christmas day folks chose sides, went out, and shot all the feathered and furred quarry they could find, and the team that killed the most won the competition. Chapman rounded up 17 birdwatchers from Pennsylvania to California, and suggested that they count birds instead of killing them. On that first count, five of the 25 CBCs took place in eastern Pennsylvania.

From that humble beginning, the CBC is now continent-wide with over 2300 count circles 15 miles in diameter. Ours is centered on a tiny crossroads in Sinking Valley called Culp. It includes our mountaintop property where we’ve been counting since 1979. For a long time I and one of our two birding sons—Steve or Mark—counted here. When they left home, I soldiered on alone, but a few years ago, Carl and Kurt Engstrom volunteered to cover the steep Sapsucker Ridge portion of our mountain while I covered the somewhat easier Laurel Ridge portion.

Recently, Steve and Mark moved back to the area, and Steve is now the CBC coordinator for the Juniata Valley Audubon Society count circle and is assisted by Mark. Determined to get total coverage of our circle, they have been going down to the valley to places that other members of our group are not able to count.

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

I figured Rachel and I would have a lovely slog through the snow, but after she and Alex had an invigorating time sledding on the 19th, they watched with us as the mountain turned from white to mostly brown under all night thaws and daytime temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit. Then rain and mist fell the evening before our CBC and into the early morning with dire predictions for the rest of the day.

The Engstroms set out by 8:00 a.m. after Carl reported four eastern bluebirds on our electric wires near the bluebird box and helped to count the meager number of feeder birds—a disappointing contrast to the huge numbers when we had seven inches of snow on the ground and temperatures had ranged in the low teens.

Undeterred by the weather, Rachel and I donned raincoats. I also carried an umbrella and kept my new “waterproof” binoculars underneath my raincoat, which did not make it easy to spot birds quickly. My so-called waterproof boots leaked as usual. Rachel, on the other hand, insisted in her British way that “layers of wool” would keep her warm and dry as did her waterproof boots and wool hat. Still, when the first deluge of rain hit us, like a cold tropical downpour, she didn’t object to sharing my umbrella through the worst of it.

The spruce grove in winter

The spruce grove in winter

Her job was to write down the bird species and numbers while I called out the identifications. At first she didn’t have much to do. We headed up to the spruce grove where I was certain we would find birds. But the birds hadn’t sought refuge there. We did instead, hoping for a cessation of the pounding rain. As we waited, we peered down into the valleys that were white with fog. At least we were above that. Those folks birding there might not fare too well. But we weren’t faring very well either, having neither seen nor heard any bird, not even on the heifer carcass staked out to attract golden eagles in front of a trail cam behind the grove.

On we sloshed to the Far Field. Still nothing.

“Are you game for a longer hike,” I asked Rachel.

Of course she was. As a British citizen, she was used to rain. Lots of rain.

We threaded our way through the trail-less woods beyond the Far Field and finally saw a downy woodpecker and northern cardinal and heard a black-capped chickadee or two.

Red-tailed hawk with vole

Red-tailed hawk with vole

From the Second Thicket, also empty of birds, we took a steep trail halfway down the mountain, stepped over a rivulet, and followed another trail through a hollow I long ago named Ruffed Grouse Hollow because I had once counted 40 ruffed grouse there on a CBC back in the early eighties. Not on this one, though. But we did find a couple of blue jays, a red-bellied woodpecker, and more cardinals and chickadees. And we heard a red-tailed hawk. Or did we? Blue jays are excellent mimics of red-tails.

“Put a question mark beside it,” I told Rachel.

All the while it rained, sometimes hard, sometimes not so hard. My shoes and socks were thoroughly soaked, but I walked fast enough that they felt reasonably warm.

A couple of times we questioned ourselves. What were a 73- and 52-year-old woman doing in this mad quest to count birds? Having fun, we assured ourselves over and over.

At last we reached the hunting lodge, and Rachel photographed the antlers hung on its back outside wall, especially one that held an old robin’s nest in its tines. After that, we took our first rest under the shelter of the porch and watched the rain. I had hoped that the hunters might have put some feeders of deer suet in their yard as they had the last time I had been there on a CBC. Then, I had been alone and in the midst of a snowstorm. But this time there was no suet or birds.

Maybe there would be birds in their autumn olive hedgerow or their cultivated fields. Nothing!

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Back into the forest we went in search of the upper trail. And then, at 11:00 a.m., our luck changed. A red-tail flew over even as blue jays scolded.

“Count that red-tail,” I told Rachel. “It’s probably the same one we heard earlier.”

We saw a few more chickadees, downies, and cardinals. Then we plunged into an overgrown area in search of another trail heading back toward the Second Thicket. As I floundered around, Rachel said, “Look.” She pointed up at a cluster of black birches with fruiting catkins that were twittering with American goldfinches. I counted and re-counted and searched in vain for a pine siskin. After numerous counts, I settled on 29.

Just like that we were on a minor roll. Two golden-crowned kinglets answered my pishing and not Rachel’s trilling birdsong, which was her British equivalent of our pishing. I had been hoping for kinglets and was grateful.

“Maybe we’ll see a brown creeper,” I said. “It’s difficult to tell their call from a kinglet’s.”

“Look,” Rachel said once again, this time with considerable excitement in her voice, and she described the location of what resembled the Eurasian treecreeper. Sure enough, it was a brown creeper scuttling up a tree trunk like a tree-borne mouse.

Brown Creeper by Kelly Colgan Azar

Brown Creeper (photo by Kelly Colgan Azar [license])

That ended our short bird rally, although we did add still more chickadees, downies, cardinals, and three tufted titmice to our list, all birds we could have counted at our bird feeders. I did locate one hairy woodpecker in our forest, but after five hours and four miles of slogging through the rain, we had counted a mere 11 species. We also spotted one of the bluebirds Carl had seen earlier as we approached our yard, and with other species at our feeders—white-throated, song and American tree sparrows, mourning doves, slate-colored juncos, house finches, white-breasted nuthatches, and Carolina wrens—we had a grand total of 19 species.

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Later, at the bird count dinner, no one had done much better, although Carl and Kurt had found one hermit thrush amid the grape tangles on Sapsucker Ridge and our sons Steve and Mark had spotted a rusty blackbird in a large flock of European starlings and brown-headed cowbirds down in the valley. Even though we had dedicated counters, we had one of the worse counts ever—only 43 species in all.

In other sections of Pennsylvania on other days counters did better—155 species statewide with Southern Lancaster County’s 102 species the best count in the state. Still, we know that as citizen scientists, according to the Audubon website, our counting helps protect species and their habitat and has “allowed researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” With the CBC and other bird counts, as well as other scientifically-based studies in whatever field a person might be interested in, we amateur naturalists can make a difference.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.