The Gifts of May

Spring is my favorite season and May my favorite month. To me, beginnings are always more thrilling than endings and comings more wonderful than goings as I experience all the excitement of new and resurrecting life—the returning of birds, the blooming of wildflowers, trees and shrubs, and the newborn fawns, bear cubs, and other mammals.

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

May gives me these and other gifts every spring when I welcome back scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, Acadian flycatchers, worm-eating warblers and all the other part-time bird residents of our Appalachian forest as they return from incredible journeys to once again court, mate and raise their families.

My May journal is filled with bird sightings and songs. Most are expected, old friends. Others are less familiar or less common on our property and are passing though in search of their particular habitat, for instance, the yellow warbler last May 24, which likes early successional lowland habitat and was singing in our remaining elm tree beside our access road.

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Another surprise, two days later, was a female northern harrier that coursed low over our overgrown First Field, occasionally dropping into the grasses but coming up empty. Once an American crow flew at her when she was on the ground but was quickly routed. It was a treat to watch as she dipped and swayed over the field, her white searchlight bright above her tail, which flared to expose its black and white stripes.

As I walked down the driveway for a closer look, she easily maneuvered through the black locust trees along Butterfly Loop, 50 feet or so above the ground, before disappearing from view. Sometimes I see northern harriers here in fall or winter, but never in spring because, as a denizen of large, open fields, she, like the yellow warbler, breeds in the nearby valleys and was only a visitor.

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still another bird species, the lovely white-crowned sparrow, visits us and appears in the spring only when our dandelions go to seed, even though its habitat—brush, forest edges, and thickets—is plentiful here. On May 3, I was treated to the sight of a pair of white-crowned sparrows hanging out in our backyard with two gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeaks and the sparrow-like brown and white of a female grosbeak. Although the grosbeaks breed on our mountain, they are rarely seen. It was a special gift of May for me to see two such striking birds together.

Then there is the inevitable mystery bird. Late on a lovely May 20th afternoon, I sat on our veranda, binoculars in hand. I heard what sounded like a partial Baltimore oriole song and found the singer up in a black walnut tree. It looked like an oriole and was yellow with white wing bars and a black face and neck. It turned out to be a first year male orchard oriole. I had been puzzled because I had only seen the adult male orchard oriole here a couple times in 45 years and they have dark chestnut rumps and breasts and black heads, necks, backs, and tails.

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But a quick look at the oriole pages in my Peterson field guide and I had identified the mystery bird. It too had strayed from its usual valley habitat of floodplains, marshes, the shorelines of large rivers and scattered trees, or along streams as well as open farmland.

According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, although orchard orioles only spend three months of the year here, they are continuing a remarkable northward expansion in the commonwealth along river valleys and now are found in varying numbers nearly statewide. But in our county—Blair—they were only noted in small numbers in the farm valleys.

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Personalities of birds vary widely as I discovered last May. As I approached the back of the spruce grove on May 23, a sharp-shinned hawk sitting in a black locust tree near the grove began calling loudly and then flew low and directly toward my head, veering off at the last minute and then landing on a nearby branch.

The following day it was even more aggressive, diving at me a couple times when I tried to enter Sapsucker Ridge Trail near the grove. For five years sharpies had raised young in our spruce grove and never were aggressive even when I walked through the grove. Usually, one parent or the other would be sitting and watching on a locust tree, and when I approached would call quietly as a warning to the other parent on the nest.

Then there had been a year without sharpies nesting in the grove. This aggressive one could have been an offspring because those sharpies always were successful raising a family as I discovered every August when their fledged young screamed for food from the tops of the spruces for a week or so before flying off to catch food on their own. Surprisingly, despite the aggression of this new sharpie, I heard no such proof of nesting success last August.

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still, because of that “crazy” sharpie, I walked off-trail through the woods to avoid the bird instead of taking my usual trail near the back of the grove to the vernal pond. As I approached the pond, I spotted a black bear walking slowly away from me, his butt still wet from his wallow in the water.

I froze and watched as he shook himself like a dog and then meandered slowly to a patch of evergreen wood ferns where he nosed around for a few minutes. Next he plodded to a nearby tree and stretched up to rub his back and scent over its trunk.

Suddenly, he turned and peered in my direction. I remained still and quiet, and he turned away and continued his slow walk until he was out of sight.

Once he was gone, I was able to track his wet steps out of the pond and over to the fern patch. I never did figure out what he was looking for. I had assumed food, but perhaps he had scented a male rival or a possible female mate, hence his back-rubbing. I only wished that I had arrived a little sooner and seen him paddling in the pond. Nevertheless, it is always a thrill to watch a bear that isn’t aware of my presence and going about his bear business.

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

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

I had gone, as I do most spring days, to the vernal pond to keep track of the wood frogs. As I had written in my March column, last spring all had gone exceptionally well for the wood frogs. But in April the expected rains didn’t come. Day by day, I watched as the pond slowly dried up. But the end of April I found only a few tiny puddles and a few wood frog tadpoles fighting for life. Once again the wood frogs had lost their gamble—or so I thought.

Then came the rains of early May. On the twelfth, it finally cleared by mid-afternoon, and I took my usual walk up First Field Trail where a ruffed grouse performed her broken wing act, on to the Far Field Road and Coyote Bench, where I was serenaded by red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers and American redstarts, and over to the vernal pond area to see if it had refilled. But first I paused to admire the spreading patch of still-blooming spring beauties near the pond.

With a heavy heart, I approached the vernal pond and blinked. It was seething with wood frog tadpoles, a veritable tadpole soup. How was it possible?

I contacted Dr. Jim Julian, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona. He specializes in herpetology and years ago gave my husband Bruce and me a tour of the vernal ponds at the Scotia game lands (SGL#176). He told me that he had “seen wood frog tadpoles survive in really wet/soupy mud for a couple days. While they use their gills to get oxygen from the water, they’re using their skin for respiration also, [which] is probably why they can live for a while after the ponds dry.”

So, mystery solved, but still such a recovery seemed almost miraculous to me and still another priceless gift from last May.

 

Coyote America, by Dan Flores

Here is a review of the book Coyote America which I wrote for the November/December 2016 issue of The Gnatcatcher, published by the Juniata Valley Audubon Society:

If you, like me, are a fan of coyotes, this book will both delight and sicken you.  Subtitled A Natural and Supernatural History, Flores covers every aspect of coyotes’ lives, present and past, the Native American fables and stories that feature Coyote, and the western settlers as well as present day Americans’ approach to these amazing and resilient creatures.

coyote-america-coverTheir story begins in the American Southwest 3.2 million years ago when coyotes split from gray wolves.  While wolves crossed into Asia and Europe, coyotes remained here and eventually became the heroes of Indian folk tales.

Early American explorers called them “prairie wolves” and seemed to admire them.  But the farmers, ranchers, and hunters of the late nineteenth century demonized them along with larger predators such as wolves.

Our “Hundred Years War,” as Flores calls it, against these animals, has been subsidized by taxpayers beginning in the early twentieth century up to the present day.  Unlike wolves, which are pack animals and were easy to kill with poison bait, coyotes are known for what scientists call their “fission-fusion” adaptations in which they can be either pack or solitary animals, depending on outside pressures and are not as easily drawn into bait.

Despite killing more than six and a half million coyotes from 1945 to 1971, the Animal Control Board, renamed the Division of Wildlife Services in 1997, under the Department of Agriculture, has continued their war against coyotes, most recently killing 512,710 coyotes from 2006 to 2011. But coyotes can adjust their population, having as many as 20 pups if they are persecuted or as few as two if they are not.

They also began their incredible expansion to the East and as far north as Anchorage, Alaska and lately have discovered the safest places to live are cities where they are not hunted and there is plenty of food.  So while a coyote requires 10 square miles of territory in the country, it only needs 3 square miles in a city.

Flores covers the many human heroes in Coyote America as well as the villains.  Mammalogists such as Olaus and Adolph Murie, who studied coyotes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Yellowstone back in the 1930s.  Olaus concluded that coyotes were not arch predators of game animals but omnivorous generalists that mostly ate mice, gophers, and hares and that only fed on elk carcasses.  Adolph agreed and added grasshoppers and crickets to their diet as well as the weakest mule deer fawns and antelopes.  But coyotes are opportunists and in the cities they not only prey on the occasional pet, especially cats, but they also eat the eggs and young of Canada geese and white-tailed deer fawns.

Still, despite the championing by informed mammalogists, the killing continued unabated.  It took an unlikely person, namely Walt Disney, to begin a sympathetic portrayal of coyotes that reached the general public.  In 1961 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color ran a six-part series entitled “The Coyote’s Lament.”  At the time federal poisoners, bounty hunters and state trappers were killing between 250,000 and 300,000 coyotes a year.  Disney ended his series with, “When the time comes when you can’t hear the song of the coyote, the West is going to seem a mighty dull place.”

Since then more and more people are opposed to the war on coyotes.  Still, that war has brought bigger coyotes to the East.  Scientists now claim, based on genetic studies, that coyote hybridization with gray wolves began 550 to 950 years ago in the Great Lakes region and have resulted in as much as 20% wolf genes in Great Lakes’ coyotes and 40% in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.  They also claim that the South’s red wolves are a hybrid of southern gray wolves and coyotes that began 290 to 430 years ago.

And so the coyote, fact and legend, has become larger than life.  As we know here in Pennsylvania our so-called eastern coyotes are bigger than those of the West.  They continue to evolve and adapt to us and our ways.  For instance, studies of urban coyotes find that fewer and fewer are killed by cars every year.

But, as Flores wonders, will we adapt to them, stop killing them and allow their populations to stabilize?

Living with Bears Redux

Most summer evenings after the heat of the day has faded, I walk Butterfly Loop. This trail encircles a portion of our 37-acre meadow we call First Field.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Often I’m treated to a stunning sunset, and always I hear and see songbirds that prefer a meadow of forbs or the edge of a wooded ridge.

Sometimes I glimpse a herd of deer before they see me and run off. Once I watched a raccoon set out for the evening along the edge of First Field, and several times I’ve encountered a porcupine grazing on the grasses.

On my July birthday last year I had made a note of the abundant ripe huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way near the Short Circuit Trail and had stood in the cool morning eating them by the handfuls.

That evening, on Butterfly Loop, I scanned the right-of-way with my binoculars. To my surprise, I spotted a large black bear doing exactly what I had done in the morning—picking and eating huckleberries.

A black bear eating huckleberries

A black bear eating huckleberries (Photo by Harvey Barrison in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Although bears are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat almost anything, more than 80% of their diet is vegetable matter—grasses and weeds in the spring, wild berries in the summer and nut species in the fall. They are especially fond of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries.

On my birthday evening, I was pleased to see a bear without it seeing or scenting me and to watch it for half an hour as it moved methodically from patch to patch, peacefully harvesting huckleberries by using its paws to hold the bushes while it broke off berries with its teeth.

Sometimes I could see its face and what appeared to be a single silver disk in the middle of each ear, but I was too far away to tell if they were ear tags. Finally, it disappeared into the taller brush.

We’ve been living with bears for almost four decades, but that was one of the few times I had a chance to observe a bear without it detecting me. Often I’ve turned around on trails when I’ve seen a bear in the distance before it sees me or I step into the underbrush and wait for it to pass. But if it’s too close, I have to stand my ground.

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

For instance, late last May, as I ambled along Laurel Ridge Trail on my morning walk, a large black sow emerged from the right side of the forest at the top of a steep incline. I expected her to cross the trail, but instead, she turned and started toward me, followed by her yearling cub.

I froze in place and considered my options. She was less than 100 feet away and moving quickly so turning around didn’t seem like a good idea. Because nearly always, talking to wild animals scares them away, first I said quietly, “You don’t want to come this way.”

The bears paused and then haltingly continued moving forward. Next I clapped my hands, a maneuver I had never tried before, and immediately the sow turned and ran into the woods on the left side of the trail.

A bear mother with her yearling cub

A bear mother with her yearling cub (Photo by beingmyelf on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the cub still hesitated until I clapped my hands again. Then it ran after the sow, and I proceeded on my way, surprised to realize that after numerous peaceful encounters with bears, I didn’t even have an elevated heartbeat.

A week later on the first of June, my husband, Bruce, went for a walk in the foggy dawn and saw a bear on Laurel Ridge. During my walk, I found many fresh scratches on the Laurel Ridge power pole, reminding me of a time, many Junes ago, when I heard and then watched a boar raking a power pole with his claws and then turning and rubbing his back against it. This was another case where the bear didn’t see or scent me even though I was only 50 feet away from him.

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Researchers still aren’t certain why black bears do this, but tree or, in our case, pole-marking behavior does occur more often during the June breeding season. However, Bruce once watched a bear shredding a power pole near the Short Circuit Trail in August. And the power poles atop Sapsucker Ridge have even more claw marks, administered throughout the year, than those on Laurel Ridge. Because of this, I’m more inclined to consider them message poles that inform other bears of their size and presence.

Lynn Rogers, who has been studying black bears in Minnesota for decades, found that most of his radio-collared tree-markers were male bears. Right after they marked a tree, Rogers was able to smell their scent on the tree. Since bears have a much stronger sense of smell than we do, Rogers thought that bears could smell the trees long after they had been marked. Perhaps, he theorized, such trees may warn males that other males are near so they can avoid fights.

Bears mating

Bears mating (Photo by the North American Bear Center on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

There’s no doubt that male bears are excited during mating season. The only time I was chased by a bear was when a male apparently mistook me for a sow. I had been sitting quietly in First Field near some shrubs when I heard a bear and stood up. As I started walking around the shrubs, I realized the bear was close behind me. Again I turned around and spoke to him. He stopped short, wheeled around, and headed off to find a female of his own species.

By the time females are in estrous, they have chased off their yearlings. Two weeks after I encountered sow and cub, first Bruce saw a yearling streaking across Greenbrier Trail near its confluence with Bird Count Trail and later our son Dave saw what was probably the same yearling still running straight out, this time across Ten Springs Trail. Probably either the sow or her paramour were chasing her persistent cub away.

Female yearlings will stay in the sow’s territory, researchers have found, but male cubs have to leave the area and try to find a place that has no bears. Male territories are larger than those of females and usually include two or more females. Territory and range size vary depending on food sources.

Bears of both sexes have been known to wander off their ranges for miles in search of food, especially in autumn when the acorn and/or beechnut crops fail because they rely on the high fat content of those foods to put on weight before winter.

Last summer our berry crops were huge, especially blackberries, and we picked over 50 quarts. Our lowbush blueberry crop was poor; our huckleberry crop adequate. Later, the black cherry crop was also poor, the wild grape crop average, and the acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts scant.

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds (Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We didn’t have any other bear encounters, but I did find piles of bear scat filled with berry seeds and later with corn, presumably from the valley farms. Unlike bears in wilderness areas, our bears can depend on cultivated crops if the wild ones fail. Here in Pennsylvania, there are many sources of food from farms and forests—carrion from domestic as well as wild animals and fresh insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and even new born fawns.

As the years have passed, we’ve had our behavior shaped by bear appetites. When we heard a bear overturn the garbage can with what we thought was a tight lid to cover itself with sunflower seed, we put the bird feeder cans in our basement. When we were awakened another night by a bear emptying our washed recycled cans, also in clean garbage cans, we put them in the basement.

We bring in our bird feeders every night during November, most of December, March and early April and then retire them until the following fall. And since a sow with her cubs broke through our kitchen screen door two years ago and was climbing in when we sent her off one summer night, we close all doors and windows in our kitchen in the evening, no matter how stifling the weather.

But even that sacrifice is worth it to live with bears. Here is a video of a bear family filmed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Two Book Reviews

I’ve decided to start periodically putting up book reviews I’ve been writing for our Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s The Gnatcatcher in the belief that reading books with a nature theme is important for those of us who love the natural world. Here is the one from the November/December 2015 issue:

Above the Waterfall coverRecently I’ve read two novels steeped in their natural surroundings.  Above the Waterfall by poet and novelist Ron Rash takes place in western North Carolina.  The chapters are related by two alternating voices.

Becky is a state park ranger, psychologically damaged by a childhood trauma only helped by a summer she spent nearby with her grandparents.  To her, life in the Appalachians as an adult is a return to the safety she felt then, and hers is the poetic voice—“the hummingbird nest at the meadow edge—a strawy thimble, the hummingbird’s wings—stained glass alive in sudden sunlight shimmer, wildflowers sway in their floral abundance, the grasshopper’s rasping papyrus wings…”

Les is the fifty-year-old, soon-to-be-retired county sheriff who is tired, after 30 years, and wants to return to a simpler life in a dream cabin he has designed after making what he thinks were major mistakes in his life.

Both Becky and Les are faced with an environmental mystery.  Who poisoned the local trout stream?  Neither think the obvious suspect poured kerosene into a stream he loves.  How this mystery is solved provides the plot, but I will remember Becky’s poetic voice long after I forget the story line of this satisfying novel.

Martin Marten coverMartin Marten by poet, essayist, and novelist Brian Doyle takes place in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest.  Dave is an honorable, young teenager, Martin Marten is a wild creature, facing adversaries, both wild and human, but who is fascinated by Dave.

How both learn and grow and the quirky adults they associate with, including a sympathetic portrait of a trapper, is the major theme of this book.  There is a touch of magical realism that appeals to all of us who wish for a similar relationship with a wild creature.

Unfortunately, martens were extirpated from Pennsylvania around 1900 by trapping and the elimination of old growth coniferous and mixed deciduous/coniferous forests, which are their preferred habitats.  Smaller than a fisher and larger than a mink, this sleek, handsome member of the Weasel Family only lives in the East in New England, the Adirondacks, northern Michigan and northern Wisconsin now.

But the inquisitive, curious nature of martens is well-known and Brian Doyle’s portrayal of Martin is spot on.  We can only regret the extirpation of such a fascinating creature from our state after reading this wonderful book.