In Praise of January

snowshoes

Snowshoes

In early January I listen to dire predictions from the local weather reporter.

“Dangerous cold,” he says.  “If you must go out, dress warmly.  But try to stay indoors and keep warm.”

No wonder most Americans are afraid to venture outside during the depths of winter.  Yet it’s a glorious time to be abroad.  The cold has killed even the heartiest biting insects.  Wind often wipes the air clean, giving me the clearest views of the year from atop First Field. Snow cover emphasizes the convoluted geology of the Allegheny Front, a stark contrast to the long ridges and valleys of our mountain and of those I can see to the east and south. Snow devils whirl below over the field. Walking back through the spruce grove, its green boughs festooned with fresh snow, is like walking through a Christmas card.

On calmer days, the thermometer drops to the lowest levels of the year.  Once, back in 1991, it reached 19 degrees below zero.  Lately, it rarely goes below zero, but when it does, I cheer.

“Drop lower,” I beg, because researchers say that the colder the temperature in north-facing hollows, the more likely hemlock woolly adelgids will die.  Maybe our hemlocks will hang on longer.  Maybe some will survive.

On those days, under cerulean skies, I catch my breath as I walk up the hollow road.  The stream flows silently beneath sculpted ice.  Blue shadows lie long over the snow. Occasional winter wrens twinkle from beneath fallen logs spanning the stream.  Those tiny mites, like the even tinier golden-crowned kinglets, seem unfazed by the cold.

January moonrise

Moonrise over the guest house, 1/29/10

White defines the landscape.  On some overcast days I have a surfeit of white — white sun, white sky, white valley, white forest, white field.  But the white nights, when the moon shines, casting its unearthly glow over the snow landscape, are the loveliest nights of the year.  I stand in our darkened house and gaze at the sight, remembering nights in my youth when I strapped on my snowshoes and walked up First Field, accompanied by the hooting of great horned owls.

As I do every night, I fling open my window before I go to bed, kneel on the floor beside it, and listen.  Sometimes I hear the great horned owls, male and female, calling back and forth, or the quavering ululations of an eastern screech owl.  If I am very lucky, I hear the distant howling of coyotes, but usually the white nights are silent.

At daybreak, though, I am awakened by the chattering of birds flying into the feeders.  In January, the greatest numbers and species of birds mob our three bird feeders hanging from the back porch and the seed-strewn steps and ground below.  If it is snowing, I can sweep the porch, spread seed there, and provide shelter for the ground feeders as well as for the feeder birds.

Last January, in the midst of snow and cold, 32 mourning doves swarmed over the back porch.  Two pairs of cardinals, the males resplendent against the snow fall, vied for feeder room. Dozens of juncos, five tree sparrows, five white-throated sparrows, several black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a downy and a red-bellied woodpecker, a couple house finches, seven American goldfinches — the gang was all there, including 10 gray squirrels. But there were no winter boreal species.  Later in the month, though, a single pine siskin accompanied a couple goldfinches at the feeders.

Pine Siskin by Putneypics, on Flickr

Pine Siskin by Putneypics, on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC)

Every January we wait for boreal species, and most winters we are disappointed. But there have been Januarys when 60 siskins at a time are not unusual.  Occasionally, a red-breasted nuthatch appears.  However, I am more likely to see them in the hollow with brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets, neither species of which ever comes to our feeders.

Common redpolls, if they are irrupting (ornithological-speak for “moving down from the north”), always arrive in January.  Usually they irrupt the same year pine siskins do.  But in January of 2009, we had dozens of siskins at the feeders and not one redpoll.  The previous winter, on the second of January, I found a mixed flock of siskins and redpolls feeding on black birch cones high in a tree that rocked in gale force winds on top of Sapsucker Ridge.  I prepared to receive them at the feeders, but no siskins and only four common redpolls visited the feeders off and on throughout the rest of the winter.

According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the winter of 2008-2009 was the “Winter of the Siskins.” In much of North America, Project Feeder Watchers, such as I, recorded the largest irruption of siskins since 1987, when the Project first began.  Later, 46 recovered bird bands from the 31,004 siskins banded in 2008-2009, showed that siskins that had irrupted to the southern United States had come from populations due north, but those from the northeast, including one banded in central Pennsylvania, had come from the west. The Pennsylvania bird, for instance, banded in April 2009, turned up in western Washington state in June 2010.  A New York bird was recovered in British Columbia.  So those siskins I watched that winter had traveled across the continent.

black bear track in snow

Sometimes bears do leave the den in January. (This is from 1/6/2006.)

The snows and storms of January often provide ideal tracking conditions.  Last winter I was tempted to rename the Sapsucker Ridge Trail the Poop and Tracks Trail.  Most days I followed coyote, porcupine, fox, and deer tracks as they wound along the ridgetop.  But in mid-January, beside the trail, I noticed a foot-and-a-half-long, rectangular-shaped hole dug through the snow to the dirt below, where scat had been deposited and tracks beside it that were those of a bobcat. Apparently, sometimes bobcats don’t cover their scat if they’re near their den.

Even though several of our hunters have seen bobcats on our property over the years, I have yet to get a good look at one myself.  Those tracks and scat were almost as good as a sighting.  I followed the tracks for more than a mile along the ridgetop before I lost them.  A few days later, our caretakers captured a couple excellent photos of a bobcat on their trail cams.

On another day, I found six different places where a coyote had defecated and then urinated in a pattern that resembled the lines a child might draw around the sun.  Several ruffed grouse tracks were etched over the landscape as if it was a giant cross stitch tablecloth.  A hole in the snow with ruffed grouse scat beside it had been where a grouse had spent a snowy night.

I tracked a porcupine to its tree den, a pile of pellets at its base.  Turkeys also used the ridgetop trail as well as the Far Field Road.  Tracks of red-backed voles and mice near the vernal ponds looked as if they had partied the previous night.  On the Steiner/Scott Trail I found rabbit, grouse, and fisher tracks.  In fact, the wild creatures seem to prefer using our trails instead of striking out on their own.  Sometimes deer, foxes, and coyotes, stepped directly on to my frozen tracks.

porcupine in a snowstorm

Porcupine along the road to the Far Field

Then comes that long-awaited pause in winter — the January thaw.  In the wet snow, raccoon and opossum tracks appear.  The snow softens and melts in the warmth.  By mid-afternoon it is 64 degrees, and I’m out on the veranda in shirt sleeves drinking my afternoon tea.  Cedar waxwings call in the distance while a flock of 50 robins stream past overhead.  The shadows of winter move across the field in the low light, burnishing the field grasses.  A male northern harrier dips and skims over the field.

The warmth encourages the gray squirrels to begin courting.  I watch and listen as they chase and scold. House finches sing and pair off.  Black-capped chickadees “fee-bee” and tufted titmice “peter, peter.”  Cardinals “cheer, cheer, cheer.”  Eastern bluebirds inspect their nest box.

Pileated woodpeckers drum over in Margaret’s Woods.  One drums at a high pitch, the other at a medium.  Then a third pileated lands on a Sapsucker Ridge power pole and after appearing to listen to both drummers, adds a much lower, less reverberating drum roll to the syncopating birds.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker tends her sap wells on a deeply-ridged hickory tree.  I can even see a drop of sap on her bill.

Our little granddaughter, Elanor, wants to play outside, and so my husband, Bruce, son Steve, and I head down the road to her favorite place—the stream at the forks and beyond. But first Steve points out a swamp sparrow sitting on a cattail in front of the springhouse.

Then, while Steve and Elanor play by the roadside, Bruce and I stop to talk to one of our hunter friends — Tim Tyler — as he drives up to collect his tree stands because another hunting season has ended. As we talk, I face First Field through the woods and spot a female northern harrier quartering low over the field. She moves back and forth and finally disappears in the grasses.  I keep watching as we talk, and after ten minutes or so she rises from the grasses without any noticeable prey in her talons, flies low for a few seconds, then slowly rises higher and higher and heads over Laurel Ridge toward Sinking Valley.

Elanor spends a happy hour or more “fishing” in the stream, sitting on a log and holding a stick over the water, dipping it down occasionally as if she has a fish on the hook.  Or she plays boats by sending leaves and sticks downstream.  Bruce, who she calls “Pocky,” aids and abets her even when she makes “bubbles” by beating her fishing stick in the water, while Steve and I keep our distance.  Steve points out a winter stonefly climbing a sapling beside the stream.

Both grandfather and granddaughter are splattered with mud and water as the shadows lengthen.  At 4:00 p.m. we hurry home to the warmth of cocoa and tea, accompanied by the last of the Christmas cookies, and Elanor exchanges her muddy clothes for clean, dry ones.

The next day winter returns.  Snow and ice, wind and cold.  But despite the weeks of remaining winter, the light is lengthening and we’ve seen and heard the first stirrings of spring.

 

Ephemeral pond after the thaw, 2010

Ephemeral pond after the thaw, 2010

All photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

The Best and Worst of Times

Plummer's Hollow Boulevard

February can be the best and worst of times. Last winter we had more best than worst. Many days were cold, crisp, and bright. Those that weren’t dumped enough snow for my snowshoeing pleasure. Unusual bird sightings and close-ups of several mammals added to my appreciation of this shortest month of the year. In addition, we had three birthdays to celebrate — our two-year-old granddaughter Elanor’s, her father Steve’s three days later on Valentine’s Day, and her Uncle Dave’s ten days after that. So when it was storming outside, we had birthday cake to eat inside.

But inside is not the life that I prefer. Even when it was two degrees below zero I was out and wondering why the local schools kept closing. Four decades ago, we lived on a farm in central Maine for five years. One winter day, when it was 40 degrees below zero, I unplugged the car engine heater, bundled baby Mark in layers of clothes, and drove Steve to first grade and Dave to nursery school in our Volkswagen bus that never warmed up above zero degrees during our half hour ride. No one there ever talked of calling off school because of the cold.

thermometerThree decades ago, several years after we moved to our mountaintop farm in central Pennsylvania, my husband Bruce went off to a January conference. Usually, he dropped the boys at school on his way to work because I stopped navigating our steep, gravel, mile-and-a-half, north-facing hollow road once the ice and snow arrived, which, in those days, was around Thanksgiving. But the boys had to get to school one morning when it was zero degrees, and back then school wasn’t cancelled because of the cold.

I didn’t want them going alone, so I walked them the two miles down to town, where we stopped at a restaurant to warm up. The hoarfrost that hovered over the river clung to my hair, and other patrons gave us startled looks as we entered the restaurant. After drinking hot chocolate, the boys walked on to school, while I returned home. We thought it a great adventure, and it remains a happy memory of childhood for them. How many such memories will today’s children have of facing and embracing the cold?

But on the two days last February, when the thermometer bottomed out at two below, I and the birds embraced the cold. Thirteen songbird species crowded the feeders, but a “thump” on our bow window brought me running. A Cooper’s hawk sat below the window and flew off as soon as it saw me. All the little birds had fled.

When I went outside it was two degrees above zero and windy. Both a song sparrow and a tufted titmouse defied the cold along the trails. A flock of black-capped chickadees fed on the hemlock cone seeds in our hollow.

Chickadee 1The following day more birds were about. Chickadees and titmice even sang. A pileated woodpecker drummed and a red-bellied woodpecker called. Juncos foraged on the ground in exposed areas where the snow had melted and a pair of white-breasted nuthatches landed on nearby trees.But I hiked on to the Second Thicket in search of a bird that had never over wintered here before, although he or another of his species had tried to the previous winter — a male eastern towhee. Following a highway of deer tracks, I threaded my way up, over, and around a nest of fallen trees and finally sat against a log listening for “toe-hee,” which I heard after a couple minutes. He had survived the cold. That was one of the best of times.

The worst of times came the next day when it was a mere two degrees. I walked down the road to escape the wind, and found 50 American goldfinches feeding on the cones of one black birch tree. A few more goldfinches and chickadees foraged on hemlock cone seeds. Behind the hemlocks, among old hurricane-felled deciduous trees, titmice and northern cardinals dug in frozen, exposed leaves while white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker mined tree trunks.

I crunched over the hundreds of fallen hemlock cones and paused to sit beneath a small hemlock overhanging Waterthrush Bench. It was so cold my pen refused to write. Idly, I glanced up at the undersides of the hemlock tree, and my heart froze as I saw woolly adelgids along the stems. I whipped out my hand lens and studied those telltale, woolly tufts. Then I looked more carefully and found other infested branches. Farther up the hollow road, other hemlock trees had woolly adelgids.

Difficult as it has been to mourn the loss of older relatives and friends over the years, such deaths are expected as is my own in not too many more years. But to lose a whole species! First, we lost our butternut trees. They were few and scattered, but we were attached to the one overhanging the guesthouse. It was one of the last to go.

Porcupine on hemlockNow my beloved hemlocks. I mourned as I contemplated the hollow, especially during the winter, without them. How dreary it will be without their evergreen boughs bent beneath the snow. Only a few white pines will brighten the monochromatic winter palette.

Being naturally optimistic, though, my mood changed when I saw an immature northern goshawk at the Far Field. Years ago I had seen a similar immature nearby and was struck at how often nature almost repeats itself.

Last February seemed to be a month for raptor sightings because later in the month a male northern harrier flew up from the valley and over the mountain as I sat on Coyote Bench, and a female American kestrel perched on a power pole in the middle of First Field. Both the Cooper’s hawk and a sharp-shinned hawk made frequent appearances in the yard and around the feeders, but neither scored when I watched.

Then came the Valentine’s Day snow. It began with an icy covering of pellets atop a thin layer of snow that had fallen overnight, followed by intermittent snow squalls. By afternoon, the wind had picked up, the thermometer had plummeted, and a blizzard of snow fell. On that day, all the schools and even the colleges were closed. Birds flocked to the feeder area. At least a foot of snow covered the ground by nightfall.

It was windy, clear, and cold — two degrees — the next day. Our son Dave broke a snowshoe trail for me in the dry, powdery snow, and I followed it up First Field in brilliant sunshine. The Norway spruce grove at the top of the field, its boughs bowed down with snow, was empty of birds or animals. While I was reveling in the snow, Bruce was trying to start our tractor with attached snow blower so he could clear our road. But the battery on the tractor was dead, and after 24 hours of charging, it still wouldn’t start. Instead, the next day Bruce draped the bulldozer with a tarp and set a torpedo heater beneath it to warm up the bulldozer engine. After several hours of this, at 11:00 a.m., the bulldozer coughed to life. Need I mention that such problems usually make February storms the worst of times for Bruce.

snowshoesThat day I followed him on foot an hour later, eager to see those still verdant hemlocks snow-covered. The hollow was heaped with snow. In some areas the stream disappeared beneath the white cover. In other places, the stream flowed around snow-covered rocks or slid beneath shards of ice.

It was the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count, started by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology several years ago to document where and how many birds and bird species were around in midwinter in North American. (See my February 2002 column.) I counted chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers. Farther down the road, I found a hairy woodpecker and heard a pileated. Where Bruce had scraped down to the ground with the bulldozer blade, juncos foraged. So too did a white-throated sparrow. A female cardinal searched for and ate fallen tulip tree seeds. Altogether, I had made a good start on the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The next three days I did the count on snowshoes as Dave broke more and more trails for me. A common raven croaked across First Field one day, and a red-tailed hawk flew from a tree overlooking the field on another. Golden-crowned kinglets were scarce last winter, but I finally found one on Sapsucker Ridge Trail where I had broken my own trail. Breaking trail in virgin snow on a bright Sunday morning was a special pleasure. The blue shadows on the snow, the distant views of bluish-white, snow-covered mountains, the fallen trees piled high with snow, the clouds racing in the wind, opening and closing patches of blue sky and sunlight like the lens of a camera, and the bits of bird life still striving and thriving despite the wind and cold–all this and more rewarded me for getting outside.

Feeder birds in snowstormI cleaned the snow off a fallen tree and sat on it, buffered by my hot seat, as the birds moved closer. Three chickadees bounced on the tree limbs above me, gleaning minute insects from thin branches. A white-breasted nuthatch landed on a small, dead snag nearby, and poked and prodded the wood. Bird shadows passed over me as the sun appeared for a few minutes. At the Far Field six juncos harvested weed seeds. One, which specialized in broomsedge, was missing most of its tail, but it could fly.

Beyond the Far Field, the sky darkened. Looking out at the valley, I could see an advancing whiteout. Then it was on me, a heavy, blinding snow shower that lasted only a short time before the sun shone again on Laurel Ridge Trail. So it went — on and off snow and sun — the rest of the dayWhen it warmed up to 11 degrees on February 19, Bruce came inside to say, “I think I heard a bluebird singing.”

Could it be? I rushed outside, binoculars in hand, listened, and scanned the electric wires. Nothing! Then I heard it. Again I scanned the wires. This time I saw, perched on the wire above the old bluebird box, a male bluebird, his sky-blue back silhouetted against the snowy field.

It was the last day of the Great Backyard Bird Count. The snowshoe trails had firmed up, making the going easy. A cardinal sang a quiet “pretty” at the Far Field, and a chickadee managed a “fee-a-bee” song. But most birds were more interested in eating than singing. On Pennyroyal Trail above the Far Field three cedar waxwings fed silently in the European buckthorn tree. In the snow beneath, a pair of juncos and a white-throated sparrow gleaned the fallen fruit. Altogether, I had tallied my all-time high of 26 bird species for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

eastern bluebirdA temporary thaw came after the Great Backyard Bird Count ended. By then the hungry deer were digging up large patches of snow so they could eat the fallen leaves. An opossum made daily trips to our bird feeder area from the woodchuck den it was sharing on the slope below our house. A fat porcupine debarked a tree branch below the First Field; the first chipmunks emerged to court and mate. The number of juncos at our feeders reached 80. And we had our first ever American crow at the feeder. A winter cranefly, its long, elegant legs supporting a thin, translucent body, picked its way over the softening snow.

My legs were not so elegant. When I tried to walk in my old snowshoe tracks that I could barely discern under a couple new inches of wet snow, I frequently missed the tracks and sank into the four inches of snow left from the Valentine’s Day snow.

There was no doubt about it. Snowshoeing was over for another year. We had survived the best and worst that February had to offer, and spring was on its way.

All photos taken in Plummer’s Hollow by Dave Bonta

Tree-Dwellers

black-throated green warbler

Warbler-watching is even more frustrating in late summer and early autumn than it is in spring. Not only do most warbler-watchers suffer from “warbler neck” as they look up at flitting birds foraging in the treetops, but they are faced with identifying what the late, great Roger Tory Peterson labeled “confusing fall warblers” in his Birds of Eastern and Central North America field guide.

They are “confusing” because, in many warbler species, most of the juveniles, along with the females and sometimes even the males, have donned dull plumages for their fall and winter sojourns in southern climes. In addition, they aren’t singing as they do in spring. At least then, if a warbler is hidden by tree leaves, I can often identify the bird by its song.

But one warbler species that is easy to identify, no matter what the season, is the black-throated green warbler. All but immature females of this obliging species show at least some of its signature black on its throat. It also has a green back, a gold and green face, white wing bars, a pale yellow breast and belly, and black streaks on its sides and flanks.

Coincidentally, the black-throated green warbler is, by far, the most common species here during fall migration. Or maybe it only seems to be the most common because even in a flock of mixed, dull-plumaged warblers that I can’t identify before they fly off, the black-throated greens are always conspicuous. They often come closer for a look and have been described by warbler-watchers and authors Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett in their field guide Warblers as “confiding” and “rather tame.”

Black-throated greens take their time during fall migration and except for yellow-rumped warblers, which winter farther north than any other warbler species, are the last warbler species to migrate through our forest. From the latter part of August until early to mid-October, they move southward in the eastern United States usually in mixed species flocks, including both other migrant species and local species such as black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice. Taking particular advantage of strong, northwesterly winds during periods of high pressure systems, they migrate by night and forage by day.

At Hawk Mountain on September 21, 1996, hawk-watchers counted 100 black-throated green warblers, but that doesn’t even compare with a count made in September 1899 in Scioto County, Ohio, where warbler-watcher Rev. W.F. Henninger counted a flock of 2000 warblers, which included 200 black-throated greens and enormous numbers of bay-breasted and blackpoll warblers.

“It was,” he wrote, “like a regular army as it moved up a long sloping hillside… Lisping, chipping, whirling, driving,” they raced up the hill with the Reverend in hot pursuit. Then they stopped, and he had time to identify and count them.

Eventually, black-throated greens reach their wintering grounds, which may be as far south as northern South America but are primarily in the mountainous regions of Mexico and Central America, Cuba and Jamaica in a variety of habitats from tropical conifer forests and cloud forests to oak and pine forests. At higher elevations they mingle with other members of the so-called virens (meaning “growing green”) superspecies–the golden-cheeked (of the Texas hill country), and the hermit and Townsend’s warblers of western North America, all of which have black throat patches.More broadly, they all belong to the Dendroica (meaning “tree-dweller”) genus, the most diverse and, at 27 species, the most numerous of the wood-warbler genuses. Of these, 16 species spend their breeding months in eastern North America, including yellow, chestnut-sided, magnolia, Cape May, black-throated blue, black-throated green, yellow-rumped, yellow-throated, pine, Kirtland’s, prairie, palm, bay-breasted, blackpoll, blackburnian, and cerulean warblers. Furthermore, 12 of those species–yellow, chestnut-sided, magnolia, black-throated blue, yellow-rumped, blackburnian, yellow-throated, pine, blackpoll, prairie, cerulean, and, of course, black-throated green warblers — breed somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Of all those species, Dendroica virens, the black-throated green warbler, is the most abundant breeder on our mountain. Yet it was not always so. When our forest was younger, we only saw this warbler in migration. But now that our forest has reached 100 years of age, it rings with the singing of male black-throated green warblers from the last week in April, when they arrive, until the end of July or early August, although their singing is most intense during the first couple weeks of their arrival. In fact, ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice and her husband Leonard, back in 1932, counted 466 songs by one male in an hour and 14,000 songs in 94 hours by another male.

Like several other warbler species, black-throated green warblers sing two distinct songs. Unlike the undistinguished buzzy trills of some warbler species, the two songs of black-throated greens are easy to learn, once you identify them. Ornithologists refer to them as the accented–“see, see, see, su-zee”–and unaccented–“zoo, zee, zoo, zoo, zee.” The unaccented is often referred to as “trees, trees, murm’ring trees,” or as ornithologist Bradford Torrey interpreted it–“sleep, sleep, pretty one, sleep.” The accented, according to F. Schuyler Mathews in his Fieldbook of Wild Birds and Their Music, resembles a “bar of the familiar old sea song “Larboard Watch” — “Lar-board watch a-hoy!” Now I don’t know that song, but knowing the accented song as I do, I can understand that analogy.

The accented “lar-board” song is sung mostly by unmated males and mated males when females are around. The unaccented “trees” song is sung while defending territory from other males or after males are mated. They are also sung almost exclusively at dawn and dusk. So even if I can’t see the singer, I can get some idea of what is going on by what song is being sung.

Ideal, black-throated green warbler breeding habitat in Pennsylvania consists of large, unbroken mixed conifer and northern hardwoods at or above 1,000 feet in the Allegheny High Plateau Section of the Appalachian Plateau. Yet, in the Ridge and Valley Province, where we live, black-throated greens live from 600 to 1200 feet in elevation and in both our lower, hemlock/hardwood forest beside our stream and in our dry, oak forests at higher elevations. But then black-throated green warblers are adaptable creatures that breed from British Columbia to Newfoundland in the north and south to New Jersey along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Appalachians as far south as Georgia and Alabama. They prefer a variety of habitats, such as hardwoods in West Virginia, pine forests farther north, and even forested wetlands.They feed in the middle and upper canopy of middle-aged and mature forests and eat a wide variety of insects and spiders, especially hairless caterpillars during the breeding season, although they will eat hairy caterpillars, particularly during a gypsy moth caterpillar outbreak. Mostly they pluck their prey from the upper sides of leaves, but they also hover and feed on the undersides. They even occasionally dart out to catch insects on the wing. During migration they like poison ivy and other berries in addition to insects.

Although nominally monogamous, the females are not above “sneak” copulations with quiet second males because males are always in excess in this species. But their male partners guard them as they build their nests and before they lay their eggs. They also fluff out their feathers in courtship displays and assist in nest-building.

Bird photographer Cordelia Stanwood spent many hours in the beginning of the twentieth century observing nest-building black-throated green warblers in the forest outside Ellsworth, Maine. She wrote, “I never saw a more substantial looking little nest. It was also one of the most beautiful I have ever found, a perfect harmony of grays.” Bound together with spider silk, the cup-shaped nests are made of twigs, grass, lichens, weed stems, and bark, lined with moss, fur, feathers, hair, and fine stems and attached to a branch or fork of a conifer or hardwood tree anywhere from three to 80 feet aboveground. In it, a female lays four to five, olive-speckled, grayish-white, oval eggs.

She alone incubates the eggs for about 12 days and chases off other birds, such as red-eyed vireos and blackburnian warblers, as well as black-throated greens that stray too close to her nest. Once the eggs hatch, she broods her young from four to six days and does most, if not all, of the feeding the first couple of days while the male sings. But the male soon assists her, and both mainly feed their nestlings small insects and spiders.

The young fledge at 10 to 11 days of age, staying close to their parents the first two days, and then, as their flying skills improve, following their parents and begging loudly. At that point, each parent takes off with a part of the brood, and they may stay together as long as a month, feeding in mixed-flocks that include black-capped chickadees. Year after year, the parents may return to the same breeding area. Certainly, they do sing in the same places on our mountain every spring.

Like most small birds, they provide food for raptors such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. Their eggs and young are eaten by blue jays, red and gray squirrels, and probably other tree-climbing predators, for instance, black rat snakes and raccoons. Other threats include collisions with manmade objects–television and cell phone towers, windmills on ridgetops, windows–during migration, and habitat loss on both their breeding and wintering grounds.

Still, because they live in a broad range of habitats throughout the year and eat a wide variety of foods, they are not as threatened as more habitat-specific warbler species such as Kirtland’s and golden-cheeked warblers. In fact, Robert Mulvihill, who directs bird research at the Powdermill Nature Reserve, the 2,200-acre biological field station of the Carnegie Museum in southwestern Pennsylvania, says that over the 45 years that fall bird-banding has been done at the Reserve, numbers of black-throated green warblers have risen. In 2004, they hit an all time high of 208, which eclipsed their previous high of 130 in 2001. In comparison, from 1961 until 1999, the average number of banded black-throated greens was 104.

On the other hand, Mulvihill says that, “A real concern is the progression of hemlock woolly adelgid and its effect on the black-throated green warblers and other, even more hemlock-specialized bird species such as blackburnian warblers and blue-headed vireos. Only time will tell whether this will lead to range and/or habitat shifts and how these will affect overall statewide population levels.”

I can only hope that the versatile black-throated green warblers will continue to find plenty of nesting habitat on our mountain. I would sorely miss their accented and unaccented songs, their confiding ways, and their striking good looks.
__________

Click on the photos to view the original photo pages on Flickr, including details on location and the photographer’s notes, if any. Top photo by Stewart Ho (used by permission); second photo of immature black-throated green by mcormier7781@rogers.com (used by permission); third and fourth photos by BlackGum Swamper (used by permission); fifth photo by Gavatron (used by permission)

February Journal Highlights

I’ve been updating my journal from the notes I take in my pocket notebook. Here are some excerpts from the first half of February.

Bucks hanging out together, still wearing antlers

February 3. Three degrees at dawn and absolutely clear. Winds cleaned the air and lowered the temperature throughout the moonlit night.

At first, when I started out at 9:30, the wind was still, the sun bright, and the temperature eight degrees. A few birds twittered along Greenbrier Trail, but none showed themselves. While I was sitting on Turkey Bench, writing notes, the wind picked up.

I met our hunter friend Jeff Scott coming up the road and we stopped to chat at the big pulloff. Suddenly Jeff whispered, “Two deer coming down the mountainside.”

I turned to look as they paused at the stream. One was clearly a six-point buck, the second either a four- or six-point. The first one leaped the stream, crossed the road in front of us, and bounded up Sapsucker Ridge. Jeff struggled to get his digital camera out of his pocket and took a couple photos of the back of the six-point. The other buck bounded back up Laurel Ridge. We continued talking, and a few minutes later Jeff said quietly, “Here comes another deer.” He saw the antlers before I did. This one was a spike, although his spikes were nicely curved. He had obviously followed his buddies’ trail, proof to me that bucks hang out together in the winter. Jeff was surprised that they all still had their antlers, and when I told this tale to the visiting Shoup brothers the following day, they too expressed amazement that they still had their antlers.

Jeff headed up Rhododendron Trail, intent on finding where the bucks had come from, while I continued on up the road. The stream, although icy in places, still provides the only running water for thristy deer on the mountain, now that ponds are frozen solid.

Official start of sunbathing season on Brush Mountain

February 6. Two below zero again this morning. Three blue jays came to the feeders.

It was five above when I went out at 9:15 in the bright sunlight. Birds sang, especially chickadees and titmice, but I also thought I heard a Carolina wren answering a titmouse. Apparently they haven’t all perished in the cold, then. A pileated woodpecker drummed.

Along the Far Field Road the road bank is exposed and juncos and titmice scratched in the leaves. A pair of nuthatches landed on nearby trees; a woodpecker tapped and a red-bellied called. I started my official sunbathing season by lying against the bank, and remained warm except for my feet.

I warmed up my feet by walking over to the Second Thicket, following a highway of deer tracks. That area too is protected, and I sat against a fallen log listening for “toe-hee,” which I heard after a couple minutes. So the over-wintering towhee is still alive!

Steve told us that the river is frozen solid.

Woolly adelgids confirmed in Plummer’s Hollow

February 7. Two degrees at dawn and a skim of snow on the back porch. I walked down the road this partially sunny but cold and windy day.

Below the big pull-off, I counted more than fifty American goldfinches feeding on the black birch cones of one tree. A few more goldfinches and chickadees fed on hemlock cones nearby. Behind the hemlocks, among the hurricane-felled trees, titmice and cardinals dug in the exposed leaves while white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker mined tree trunks.

I crunched over the hundreds of fallen hemlock cones and paused to sit beneath a small hemlock overhanging Waterthrush Bench. It was so cold that my pen refused to write. Cold air drains down our north-facing hollow so it remains the coldest place on the mountain.

Idly, I glanced up at the undersides of the hemlock branches, and my heart froze. There were little white spots all along the stems, just as in the photos of a beginning woolly adelgid buildup. I whipped out my hand lens and studied those telltale, woolly tufts. Then I looked more carefully and found other infested branches. No wonder the hemlocks have looked thinner lately.

Farther up the hollow road, in an isloated cluster of small hemlock trees, I found more woolly adelgids. So, the jig is up. I can no longer kid myself that the branch of white tufts that I saw along the Ten Springs Extension several weeks ago was my imagination.

Difficult as it has been to mourn the loss of older relatives and friends over the years, such deaths are expected, as is my own in not too many years. But to lose a whole species! First, we lost the butternut trees. They were few and scattered, though we were all attached to the one overhanging the guesthouse. It was the last to go.

Now, my beloved hemlocks. I must admit I cried as I contemplated the hollow, especially in winter, without them. How dreary will be the loss of their evergreen color, their boughs bent beneath the snow. Soon only a few white pines will color the monochromatic winter palette.

Possible goshawk sighting

February 11. Seven degrees at dawn and mostly overcast. I headed up First Field Trail, hearing only a distant woodpecker drumming. As I reached the Far Field, I looked up to see a raptor flap off. All I saw were its white underparts and long wings, and it looked larger than a redtail. Could it have been a northern goshawk? I got a second glimpse of it and still had the impression of gray and white.

Later, I checked my new Thayer birding software, and after studying many photos of the bird, it seemed the most likely choice. After all, the only northern goshawk I ever saw here — an immature — was in the very same place!

Great Backyard Bird Count

February 16. Five degrees and windy, but mostly clear. The white-throated sparrow brought a friend to the feeder area. Also, goldfinches appeared and added to a good feeder-count for the first day of the GBBC.

The tractor still wouldn’t start, despite a battery charger on for 24 hours, but the bulldozer did, and Bruce started down near 11:00 a.m. I followed at 12:00. It was hard going because the bulldozer makes a rough track, but where Bruce had scraped down to the ground with the blade, in the middle of the road, seven juncos foraged. So too did a white-throat and a female cardinal. The latter searched for and ate fallen tulip tree seeds.

The hollow was beautiful, heaped with snow. In places the stream disappeared beneath the white cover. In other places, it flowed around snow-covered rocks or slid beneath shards of ice. In the hemlocks I counted six chickadees, some titmice, nuthatches and downies. Farther down the hollow road, I found a hairy woodpecker and heard a pileated woodpecker. Altogether, a good start for the GBBC.

On my way back up, I encountered Bruce as he approached from behind on the bulldozer. I tried to keep ahead of him, but the ruts and uneven areas were too difficult to walk fast on. Finally, I stepped aside and let the belching machine past. Despite many layers of clothes, Bruce was very cold and red-faced because he was sitting while I was exercising hard and even threw my hood off several times.

February 17. It was 29 degrees by the time I got outside in early afternoon. I snowshoed across First Field and heard a raven. Dave had broken trail along Greenbrier Trail for me and had heard, this morning, a Carolina wren. He also saw a large bird of prey near the feeders — the Cooper’s hawk, no doubt.

In Margaret’s Woods, I noticed that the chestnut oak trunks were riddled with gypsy moth egg cases. I sure hope we don’t have a bad outbreak of them this summer.

Two cardinals called along Greenbrier Trail, and I heard a downy in the distance.

On the way up the road, I found a spot on the bank where junco feathers were scattered all around, as the accipiters do when they pluck their victims. That Cooper’s hawk must have scored.

February 18. Nineteen degrees and flurries at dawn. First twenty-six mourning doves, then sixty juncos came into the feeder area, along with some squirrels, five tree sparrows, two white-throats, and four cardinals.

I started out in a heavy snow shower and saw a red-tail take off from the side of First Field. I followed the snowshoe tracks of the other day up into the spruce grove. Gradually, the flurry subsided and the sun shone. I broke trail on Sapsucker Ridge Trail and flushed a deer. Then in the Far Field woods I picked up a golden-crowned kinglet, a hairy and downy woodpeckers, a white-breasted nuthatch, and several chickadees.

I so enjoyed breaking trail in the virgin snow this Sunday morning! I can’t understand why more people don’t get outside and move in this glorious weather. The shadows on the snow alone are worth the effort, not to mention the distant, bluish-white, snow-covered mountains seen through the open forest, the fallen trees piled high with snow, the clouds racing in the wind, opening and closing patches of blue sky and sunlight like the lens of a camera, the bits of bird life still striving and thriving despite the wind and cold.

I cleaned snow off a fallen tree and sat on it, my hot seat buffering my rear end, as the birds moved closer. Three chickadees bounced on limbs, gleaning minute insects from thin branches. A nuthatch landed on a small, dead snag, and poked and prodded the wood. Bird shadows crossed above me as the sun appeared again for a few minutes, and I felt more akin to the birds around me than I do to humans caught inside by the thrall of technology. I hoped to go see a foreign film in Altoona this evening, one I’ve been looking forward to, but given the choice of a mild winter and easy access to entertainment or this chance to once again snowshoe in a snow-covered forest, I’ll take the latter any day.

Six juncos harvested weed seeds at the Far Field, one specializing in broomsedge and close enough (two feet) to photograph if I had a camera. It was missing most of its tail, but it could still fly.

Beyond the Far Field, the sky was dark. Looking out at Sinking Valley, I could see a whiteout advancing. Then it was on me, a heavy, blinding snow shower as I negotiated around numerous deep holes deer had dug in the road. The snow lasted only a short time and again the sun shone on Laurel Ridge Trail. I was home by 11:30.