Going, Going, Gone

August is mostly hot and humid, but every year there are more and more mosquitoes. Many people blamed the excessive rain in the spring and summer of 2018 for the massive numbers of mosquitoes and black flies. It was almost as if we were living in the North Woods.

Wood frog tadpoles

Wood frog tadpoles (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Our vernal ponds on top of Sapsucker Ridge became permanent ponds that provided adequate breeding places for mosquitoes once the hundreds of wood frog tadpoles metamorphosed and leaped away into the woods in late May and early June.

Other conservationists I talked with agreed that even the smallest vernal ponds didn’t dry up in late spring as usual. But while I agreed that our record-breaking wet year was partially responsible for the large mosquito population, I didn’t think that was the whole story.

The invasive white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease brought accidentally to a New York state cave in 2007 by Europeans, has killed 99% of our little brown bats in a few years. Previously we could sit outside on our veranda at dusk and watch as the bats flew overhead eating mosquitoes. Now that they are gone and despite the best efforts of biologists throughout the United States, all cave bat species will not recover to anywhere near their previous numbers for a century or more. Consequently, mosquitoes are so bad here that sitting outside on our veranda in the evening is only a fond memory.

White nose syndrome on a little brown bat

White nose syndrome on a little brown bat (Photo by Marvin Moriarty/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The country church at Canoe Creek State Park that once housed a nursery colony of as many as 22,642 mostly little brown bats, now has 250 mostly big brown bats that have not been as susceptible to the disease.

A Blair County mine, gated by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, held 30,000 or more little brown bats before 2010, when white-nose syndrome was first detected there, but in 2015 it had a mere 54 of them, in 2018 it had 290, and last winter 150, according to PGC biologist Greg Turner.

“Each bat eats nearly one million insects a year,” Turner says in an email. And little brown bats, once Pennsylvania’s most common bat species, specializes in mosquitoes, according to Melvin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International.

Many folks believe that nature can easily recover from such losses, but while killing coyotes, for instance, will encourage them to produce more offspring, a little brown bat female can produce only one pup a year.

Ruffed grouse tracks in our woods in the winter of 2007

Ruffed grouse tracks in our woods in the winter of 2007 (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our plague of mosquitoes may also be carrying West Nile virus because we used to have a good population of ruffed grouse. Last spring, although my son Dave and I monitored all the places where we used to hear drumming in the spring on our 648 acres, we heard none. The days of being detained while driving down our wooded mountain road by displaying ruffed grouse or being stopped on our Far Field Road or First Field Trail by distressed females as their little, pale yellow, powder-puff chicks ran off and hid are over.

Insects from abroad are also wreaking havoc on our hemlock and ash trees. Although the hemlocks are dying a slow death instead of a fast one, probably because of occasional below zero winter temperatures that kill off many hemlock woolly adelgids, our ash trees have succumbed quickly to the emerald ash borers. Everywhere I walk on our land I see dead ashes where only a few years ago they were thriving and attracting songbirds, wild turkeys and squirrels to their winged seeds.

As if all the invasive insects and diseases aren’t enough to keep scientists busy, we are faced with an onslaught of invasive plants that are overwhelming our fields and forests. Every spring I pull out as many garlic mustard plants, a European invasive, from our primary forest as possible especially from our mile-long road bank that harbors a wide variety of native wildflowers and shrubs.

Japanese stiltgrass came in with the logging trucks on our neighbor’s adjoining property (now ours), and we didn’t realize the danger of this annual grass from East Asia, also known as Asian stiltgrass and Chinese packing grass. In fact, the dried grass filled with seeds was accidentally introduced in packing material for Chinese porcelain in Tennessee back in 1919.This one to two-foot tall weed forms a dense mat that smothers any small plants or seedlings in open areas in our forest and fields.

Japanese barberry in its autumn coloration

Japanese barberry in its autumn coloration (Photo by James Gaither on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The 120-acre logged area we purchased in 1992 has since filled up with invasives including Japanese or red barberry, a Japanese native shrub introduced in the late 1800s in the United States as an ornamental. It forms dense stands that shade out and displace native species. Not only is it two to six feet high, but it can reach that width as well. In addition to spreading in the logged land, it also managed to invade our three-acre deer exclosure when a large maple tree came down in a wind storm, creating an opening in this section of our forest.

Yet in a 40-acre section of forest on Sapsucker Ridge that came down in an ice storm, not one barberry germinated. As I walk our trails, observing where various invasives take hold, I often puzzle about why this spot and not that one and know that the answers are complex as are most puzzles in the natural world.

Last September, while walking Butterfly Loop around the edge of our First Field, also hedged with barberry below the wooded ridge, I noticed iridescent blue fruit growing in terminal clusters from a vine hanging on a black locust tree. It had triangular-shaped leaves and downward curving spines on stems and leaf veins. To my horror, I identified it as mile-a-minute, still another invasive from East Asia.

Mile-a-minute grows in moist, sunny locations along road sites, rivers and stream banks, powerline right-of-ways and disturbed forest sites. I immediately ripped out all the plants I saw at the top edge of First Field and quickly discovered that its vine-like stems grow up to 20 feet long.

The next day, when I walked Greenbrier Trail through the logged area, I saw acres of mile-a-minute covering many barberry shrubs like shrouds. An invasive on top of an invasive. That was a first for me. I started yanking it out, but after an hour I gave up. There was far too much of it for me to remove. If only I had noticed it sooner.

Jetbead

Jetbead (Photo by Katja Schulz on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

With that lesson in mind, I finally identified the beautiful shrubs with lovely, white, four-petaled, two-inch-wide flowers at the base of our mountain as jetbead. Again from East Asia and again introduced as an ornamental to the United States in 1866. Named for their clusters of red, bead-like fruits that turn ebony, they create a thick shrub layer in forests that displace native shrubs and shade out understory species, such as tree seedlings.

I started pulling out the shrubs and quickly realized that there were more than I could handle. Our caretakers have taken over the job and have nearly eradicated it.

Greater celandine

Greater celandine (Photo by Matthew Beziat on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To reach our road, we cross a county bridge over the Little Juniata River and drive a couple hundred feet on a gravel township road where folks often dump cuttings from their gardens. That small section of roadside harbors numerous invasives such as English ivy and greater celandine. The latter plant has bright yellow, poppy-like flowers in May and June. Also known as “rock poppy” and “devil’s milk,” it comes from Europe and Asia and can outcompete native plants.

A friend had warned me years before that it was invasive so when I found several dozen plants growing on the Far Field Road bank, more than two miles from the colony along the township road, I regretfully yanked every plant out by the roots. So far, none have returned. A small victory indeed when stacked up against the dozens of invasive plants, insects, and diseases plaguing our fields and forests.

I never thought, at my advanced age, that I would see so many permanent changes on our land, primarily due to foreign trade and travel. Furthermore, I see little hope in eradicating these plagues here during my lifetime.

A male hooded warbler in Union, Pennsylvania

A male hooded warbler in Union, Pennsylvania (Photo by Dave Inman in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One day, in late August, I walk over to Greenbrier Trail and hear a singing hooded warbler. Then I notice a native Hercules’ club in green berry. I drop down to Ten Springs Trail where I find the trail bank is filling in with native maple-leaf viburnum shrubs and white wood asters. Walking back up our road, I discover a blooming turtlehead beside the stream. There is still much native beauty and wildlife on our mountain and I am grateful.

 

April Journal Highlights (1)

Heaven on Earth

April 1. Forty degrees at dawn and overcast. But a flash of sunlight encouraged me to go outside before the expected rain. I was fully dressed, boots laced, umbrella hanging on my belt, when the heavens opened. April Fool, I thought, and prepared to spend the day inside, catching up on my writing. In the midst of the cold rain, the first daffodils opened.

April 2. As I set out on my morning walk up Guesthouse Trail, the sun penetrated the fog. In a few minutes it was clear and warm here. Not so in the valleys. They were filled up with fog that spilled over the lower ridges. Maybe that’s why the red-winged blackbirds flew up here to sing.

A winter wren sang briefly as I sat on Coyote Bench. I also heard the clear notes of a blue-headed vireo.

At the largest vernal pond, I found no sign of wood frogs, but on the pond bottom below a small clutch of eggs still floating in the water, I saw many more clutches of wood frog eggs.

Four hen turkeys ran across First Field Trail at the very same place I saw them the other day. Nature does repeat itself once in a while.

April 3. Sitting on Pit Mound Trail on Laurel Ridge, I watched a couple hermit thrushes fly silently downslope. One stopped to flip over leaves before continuing north.

Sitting on Shrew Bench, I watched a question mark butterfly on the ground, pumping its wings in the warming sun. Later, on Laurel Ridge Trail, a blue azure twinkled ahead of me like one of the wee fairies of Irish whimsey. A trailing arbutus bloomed and I knelt to sniff its sweet odor as I do every spring.

Coming back on Short Circuit Trail, I heard a long trill that sounded too high to be a chipping sparrow. I looked around and saw a pine warbler foraging and singing in the top of a tall white pine.

The thermometer hit 79 degrees by mid-afternoon, and more daffodils opened as the day progressed. I almost imagined I could see them opening so quickly did the blossoms appear. The forsythia was almost out too. The pink hyacinths, planted among the daylilies, were also blooming. Sitting outside on the veranda in the evening, I heard eastern towhees calling from several directions. At least one spring peeper also called.

April 4. Forty-four degrees at dawn, rain and fog. A male brown-headed cowbird and two females came into the feeder area. So did a fox sparrow, or perhaps I should say the fox sparrow.

At noon the fog thickened and then, in just a few minutes, the sun shone through it and blue sky appeared. As we ate lunch, we counted dozens of northern flickers in the yard, poking around in the ground like robins. A hen turkey also paraded past at the edge of First Field. Was she listening for a gobbler?

I headed over to Greenbrier Trail after lunch. At least two blue-headed vireos sang, and then, to my astonishment, a ruby-crowned kinglet sang. Usually, I don’t hear them until the middle of April.

Already the barberry shrubs, arbor vitae, and multiflora roses have greened up, and red maples are in full gold and red bloom. Garlic mustard has sprouted everywhere. A new study shows that it kills the soil fungi needed by maple and ash trees to grow. In front of a hedge of barberries was a cluster of native spicebushes in bloom. Natives mix with non-natives, Pennsylvania cress vs. garlic mustard, spicebush vs. barberry, red and striped maples vs. ailanthus, blackberry vs. multi-flora rose. What a mixture we have brewed.

At least all the birds are native, and they seem to have the intelligence to switch to new foods when they need to — for instance, those non-native berry-producers that have taken the place of our native shrubs that have been consumed by our overabundant deer.

April is a wonderful month for birdsong because it is a mixture of those that are staying with those that are leaving or merely migrating through such as the fox, white-throated and American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, ruby-crowned kinglets, and brown creepers.

But where are the Carolina wrens? They were here until the March cold and snowstorms. Then, as I was writing these very words in my notebook while sitting on a log, a winter wren came to within a couple feet of me, calling and bouncing up and down like a diminutive teeny-bopper. It was almost as if it was offering itself as a consolation prize for the loss of the Carolina wren. A strange coincidence.

I continued my walk and looked up to see a porcupine snoozing high in a tulip poplar tree. A red-tailed hawk called, but I couldn’t see it. Cardinals sang as the wind picked up and more ruby-crowned kinglets warbled and ended with their signature “Look at me, look at me, look at me.” Then I heard the “mew” of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, migrating through on its usual schedule.

Yet the old, dried, beige leaves of the beech trees still clung to the branches, and they shivered in the breeze like miniature ghosts of winter past. New leaves should be pushing them off soon.

On a hunch, I crossed the stream at Pit Mound Trail and found the first few delicate yellow round-leaved violets in bloom. Then I sat next to the rushing stream to catch those invigorating ions. Ah! I still believe heaven on earth is an Appalachian spring! Talk about resurrection. I see it all about me and wish only to live through many more springs. To go from barren to overflowing in only a couple months continues to be awe-inspiring. And yet I usually sit alone. Even people who are retired only celebrate spring from their car windows. More and more people have less and less contact with the natural world in our videophiliac country. Even those who live in the country are more wedded to their riding lawn mowers and barbecue pits and rarely venture into the pockets of wildness beyond their acres of closely-cropped grass.

The first hepatica flower bloomed on the road bank.

Return to Winter

April 5. Twenty-four degrees at dawn and overcast. A sudden plunge back into winter and we spent the day in State College. Off-and-on snow showers melted on the warm ground and roads.

At home I looked out to see the birds mobbing the feeders and ground beneath them. The fox sparrow was still here, as well as chipping, field, tree, song, and white-throateds, but what was that sparrow? It’s head was a deeper chestnut than that of a chipping sparrow. It had gray instead of white on either side of the chestnut patch on top of its head. A black line ran through its eye. It had a pale patch below its throat and no spot in the middle of its chest like a song sparrow, only blurry streaking. Its wings were a reddish-brown. Could it be a swamp sparrow? Indeed it was. And I had learned another one of those LBJs or little brown jobs.

April 6. Twenty-two degrees at dawn and snowing this Good Friday. The snow covered the daffodils and hyacinths as more than two inches fell. The swamp sparrow was back, along with all the other sparrows and goldfinches.

I sighed and put my winter clothes on again. Then I set out into the bright sunlight in mid-morning. Would the birds I heard on April 4 still be around? Yellow-bellied sapsuckers called in Margaret’s Woods, ruby-crowned kinglets sang and foraged on Greenbrier Trail. A towhee called once. Yes, they were still all here.

April 7. I found the same birds at the Far Field as I had during yesterday’s walk in the opposite direction–several brown creepers and hermit thrushes, a quiet phoebe insect-catching from a limb, a pair of bluebirds, towhees calling and singing from all directions, a couple yellow-bellied sapsuckers, winter wrens wherever I went, and once I heard a portion of a ruby-crowned kinglet song. I also scattered a herd of six deer.

Mostly sunlight except for a snow shower that caused a complete white-out of Sinking Valley, but it didn’t amount to much when it reached the mountaintop. This unseasonable cold has spread throughout the East and Midwest and as far south as Georgia, blackening peach tree blossoms and threatening other fruit crops as well. Luckily, our own local fruit orchard owners are smart enough to plant several varieties of peaches, apples, strawberries, etc. so that they bloom at different times and luckily it hadn’t been warm enough in our area to bring out the tree blossoms yet.

I sat at the Far Field and soaked up as much sunshine as possible while the wind howled over Sapsucker Ridge.

Steve reported seeing a silent Louisiana waterthrush near the forks. Right on time despite the weather.

A single opossum came to the feeder area as it has most evenings. I always talk to it when I bring the feeders in, and it seems to be getting used to my voice, because instead of running off, it glances up briefly and then goes back to eating.

April 8. Twenty-six degrees at dawn and windy, dropping to 23 degrees by 9:00 a.m. when I went out for my walk. What a gloomy, gray, cold Easter. Daffodils laid on the ground and I wondered if they would resurrect after this incredible cold? The birds were almost silenced at dawn and afterward.

Once I heard a winter wren calling and half of a blue-headed vireo song, but mostly the woods were silent. Sitting on Shrew Bench, I did hear the faint gobbles of a turkey.

April 9. Another new inch of snow. By 9:00 it was 31 degrees, a few flakes still sifted down, but the sun occasionally shone. Birds mobbed the feeder area, including six mourning doves. One kept up his dolorous song as I headed across a mostly silent First Field and into an equally quiet Margaret’s Woods. But on Greenbrier Trail, a winter wren sang as I sat hidden back in the brush. I also heard a towhee, ruby-crowned kinglets, and a blue-headed vireo. A trio of black-capped chickadees landed on the witch hazel shrub in front of me, “dee-deeing” within a couple feet of me and flitting above my head.

A gobbler answered the hen calls I made with the box caller, and although his gobbles came closer over the next 20 minutes or so, I never saw him.

April 10. The mountain laurel looked pitiful even on the powerline right-of-way and semed to be in a free fall. Leaves on whole shrubs have turned brown and dropped. More and more gray bodies, contorted, naked branches bereft of leaves.

On Guesthouse Trail many of the small rhododendron shrubs have been recently stripped of leaves by the deer.

At the Far Field, I listened to a ruffed grouse drumming in the woods beyond, but I could not sneak close enough to see him. Eastern towhees called, along with a ruby-crowned kinglet or two. Once in a while a dim sun penetrated the clouds. When it did the birds activated. A bluebird sang briefly. Then a cardinal, followed by a ruby-crowned kinglet. I’ve never heard as many ruby-crowns as I have this spring. Usually they move on after a week or so.

See also my recent post on the Plummer’s Hollow blog.

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.

They Came and They Went

It took house finches almost 43 years to make it from Jones Beach, Long Island, where birders identified the first wild eastern house finches, to our mountaintop in central Pennsylvania, even though they had been frequenting bird feeders in nearby valleys for seven years.

I know the exact date the first house finches appeared at our feeders–December 30, 1983. That was when I noticed a drab, brown-striped female eating by herself. A few seconds later, she was joined by a flashy male house finch. By April we had two pairs nesting in our yard.

We took them for granted back in the 1980s and early 1990s. As many as 75 mobbed our feeders during the winter, and a pair or two were always courting by late February. Most people dismissed them as just another invasive species like European starlings and house sparrows. Yet unlike those European immigrants, house finches are native Americans.

They originated in western North America, ranging from south central British Columbia to Oaxaca, Mexico, hence their scientific name Carpodacus mexicanus, which means “fruit biter of Mexico.” They especially favored the valleys of the Pacific slope of central and southern California. Once inhabitants of undisturbed wild places, they easily adjusted to our changes in the landscape and have subsequently thrived in our cities, suburbs, and farms, building their nests in a variety of places such as in yard trees, on ledges, in ivy on buildings, on street lamps, and in hanging planters.

Because these western house finches were known for their “rollicking, warbling” songs and the brown-streaked males for their colorful bright red or orange breasts and rumps, they were illegally captured, caged, and shipped to the eastern United States where they were sold as “Hollywood” finches in New York. When United States Fish and Wildlife Service agents moved to stop the trade, those dealers who possessed house finches quickly released them on Long Island to avoid arrest.

Although house finches took ten years to spread into nearby Connecticut and New Jersey, by 1980 house finches ranged as far north as southern Maine, west to southern Michigan and western Illinois, and south to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. They weren’t quite the same bird though. Some eastern house finches learned to migrate and, as a result, their wing structure differs slightly from their western counterparts that never migrate.

Their songs have also changed. Male house finches in the eastern United States have local dialects, unlike those in the West. On the other hand, western house finches have far more diverse songs than those in the East.

The songs are sung almost year around, mostly by males, although occasionally females sing too. Males seem to sing to attract females, to show aggression to other house finches, and even for their own pleasure. Because there are many more males than females, competition for females in winter flocks, where they pair up, is fierce.

Most pairs are faithful through the nesting season, even though some occasionally switch mates. Others stay together and nest in subsequent years. Such pairs breed earlier and are more attentive to each other. The males more carefully tend the females as they sit on eggs, and the females are more likely to follow the males during nest-vicinity fights than those of later, presumably novice breeding pairs.

After the males’ frequent performance of their “butterfly flight” in which they slowly climb skyward and then glide back to a perch while singing loudly, pairs begin billing and then courtship feeding. That leads to nest-building, mostly by the female, and copulation. The male also fiercely guards the female during this period and through egg-laying.

House finches build their nests from mid-to-late March and lay between four and five eggs. In most places they have two or three nestings by late July. The females incubate the eggs from thirteen to seventeen days, depending on how cold the weather is, and after the eggs hatch, the parents feed the nestlings plant food which they regurgitate from their crops. The young fledge anywhere from twelve to nineteen days.

As with other invasive species, house finch numbers exploded in the eastern United States. They became the most common backyard bird in the country, pushing their closest relatives, purple finches (C. purpureus), as well as American goldfinches, from feeders. By 1991 estimates of individual house finches in North America ranged from 267,720,000 to 1,440,720,000.

Then, in 1994, disaster struck. In February Maryland feeder watchers noticed house finches with red, swollen, runny and crusty eyes. Scientists quickly determined that they had a respiratory infection, which they called conjunctivitis, which was caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma gallisepticum. A common disease in domestic turkeys and chickens, it had never before struck songbirds. Within ten months the house finch disease had spread from eastern Ontario to southern Virginia. Two and a half years later, folks across eastern North America had reported the disease at their feeders.

As a veteran participant in Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, that began in 1988, I was asked, along with the thousands of others in the program, to join their House Finch Disease Study. After two years of seeing no signs of disease in my flock, I withdrew from the study. But I continued my participation in Project FeederWatch. Through 1996-97, my house finch numbers remained in the sixty range. Then they started to fall. Still, I saw no sign of the disease. By 2001, my average flock size was three. That was the year when Cornell reported that house finch numbers had dropped a whopping sixty percent.

Conjunctivitis usually didn’t kill house finches outright, but they were essentially blind and couldn’t see to eat or evade predators. So they died from starvation, exposure, or predation.

House finches had long since ceased breeding here, and last winter, for the first time, not one house finch came to my feeders. At the same time, our American goldfinch flock rose to seventy-five. We also saw more purple finches in the late fall.

I wondered if others in Pennsylvania had had a similar experience, but of the fourteen people across the state who answered my query on the Pennsylvania Bird listserv, only one person reported no house finches. Almost everyone else had low numbers–6 to 8–except for Philadelphia, suburban Harrisburg, Quakertown, and Nazareth, Northampton County where numbers ranged as high as 25. Many folks recorded eye disease in their flocks, and two observers saw it in goldfinches and purple finches too.

Joyce and Phil Schaff of Chambersburg reported 9 purple finches, two of which had the disease, dozens of goldfinches, and only 5 to 6 house finches. Two of their house finches had conjunctivitis. Stan Kotala, who lives at the other end of our mountain, told me that he noticed an increase in purple finches at his feeders over the last five years and had had 12 in April. Charlie and Marge Hoyer, my closest neighbors on the mountain–three miles as the crow flies–had 6 to 8 house finches at their feeders last winter.

I hypothesize that, for the most part, these urban, suburban and farm-loving birds only stray to wilder places when their numbers are high. The nearest bird feeders to mine are probably two miles away in the valley. That’s not too far for house finches to range. Andrew Davis, who radio-tracked them in Ithaca, New York, from one backyard feeder to another, found that they could easily range from one to two miles a day.

Davis also studied the winter-roosting behavior of house finches and discovered that their roosts only contain house finches. They use the same conifers more than 30 feet tall as roosting trees night after night. House finches begin arriving in the roost area and gathering in nearby deciduous trees two hours before dusk. Their numbers increase until half an hour before dusk, and then each bird flies silently into the thickest and highest part of the conifer tree or trees, depending on the size of the flock, and don’t move or make a sound after settling down for the night.

It is their winter-flocking habit, as well as the long distance dispersal of juveniles that helped to quickly spread conjunctivitis. Also, because eastern house finches originated from a small number of released birds, they are highly inbred and have low genetic diversity, which may have made them more susceptible to the disease.

Scientists have been surprised at the longevity of the disease. Most diseases run their course in a few years once a large proportion of a population is eliminated as eastern house finches were. Instead, it has continued to spread across North America. In the winter of 2004, the North West house finch population experienced their first widespread epidemic of house finch eye disease. Here in the East, Cornell scientists estimate that five to ten percent of house finches now have conjunctivitis, but that it is no longer a dire threat to the species.

Researchers Andre A. Dhondt, who has been studying this surprising disease from the beginning, and Melanie Driscoll have learned that it rises at the end of summer and peaks in autumn. Then it declines to a mid-winter minimum, increases to an early spring peak, and returns to minimal numbers during the breeding season.

House finches still remain among the most common feeder species even though their flock size continues to fall, dropping to record or near-record lows in the East and North Pacific areas, as of the winter of 2004-2005, according to the reports from participants in Project FeederWatch.

I suppose that sooner or later a few house finches will find my feeders again. Next time I won’t take them for granted. If there is any lesson I’ve learned over my decades of nature-watching, it is that nothing remains the same.