Weird Winter

The weird winter of 2017 had thaws longer and warmer than freezes. Our white nights of bright moonlight shining on snow were scarce. It was an old person’s winter lacking the usual ice and snow that often makes for hazardous walking. Since I am an old person, I should have been grateful but I wasn’t because rain and above average temperatures most of January brought out the ticks.

An eastern towhee taken in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania

An eastern towhee taken in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Near the end of January, when the thermometer fell below freezing for a few days, a male eastern towhee appeared in our bird feeding area and stayed for a short while. Never before had I seen a towhee at our feeders in winter.

Our feeder visitor used our old Christmas tree, which we had laid out below our back porch, as cover and he called “toe-hee” several times. His robust reddish-brown, black and white body was a striking contrast to the smaller, brown and gray birds feeding on the ground around him.

On the third day of his visit he sang his “drink your tea,” undoubtedly his swan song since that was the last time we saw him. Maybe he sensed the imminent six-inch snowstorm, but he should have waited until February because on the first of the month it warmed up to 48 degrees and most of the snow melted.

Once again we were back to a snow-less, beige, black, and brown forest with touches of evergreen. On Groundhog Day Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. I was dubious of his claim. By February 6 it smelled, looked and sounded like spring as pileated woodpeckers drummed and northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice sang.

Two chipmunks in Pennsylvania

Two chipmunks in Pennsylvania (Photo by Jim, the Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Two chipmunks joined the feeder birds in the morning and two more chased below the guesthouse porch, clearly in courtship mode, as the temperature rose to 56 degrees. I predicted an increase in chipmunk numbers for the year, not only because of the huge acorn crop the previous fall, but because the mild February would give them plenty of time to breed.

“Nature’s pruners” worked overtime as “March” winds ripped through a week of February days and nights, and fallen limbs and dead trees littered the trails. The winds were followed one night by an almost unprecedented February thunderstorm that began with claps of thunder and streaks of lightning and ended with pings of sleet on our bow window as the temperature dropped below freezing.

During the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), scheduled as a mid-winter count February 17 through 20, we had the best weather ever for that time of year. Unlike other years, when the trails were icy or deep in snow, the ground was open, and I was able to wander much farther than during previous GBBCs.

The first day of the GBBC, full of expectation, I hiked up a path-less section of Sapsucker Ridge, but except for distant woodpecker drumming, I neither saw nor heard any birds. Even the spruce grove was quiet.

A white-throated sparrow photographed during a Great Backyard Bird Count

A white-throated sparrow photographed during a Great Backyard Bird Count (Photo by Stephen Little on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

However, when I reached the Far Field, six dark-eyed juncos flushed from the side of Pennyroyal Trail. I listened to a pair of chickadees counter singing, heard a downy woodpecker drumming, and saw a couple white-throated sparrows lurking in the barberry shrubs at the far end of the Far Field.

From there I walked to the Second Thicket and heard a pileated woodpecker drumming. It seemed to be woodpecker-drumming weather, and the pileateds sounded like the drum roll of a marching band. I wondered how far pileated drumming carried, because beyond the Second Thicket halfway down another ridge, I heard another pileated, and on Coyote Bench still another. It was as if the whole mountain was a pileated band, drumming in an early spring.

By mid-afternoon it was 57 degrees, yet my bird species’ list was sparse despite the miles I had walked. Near our feeders and on them were more bird species than I’d seen on my entire hike.

The next day was even warmer, reaching 67 degrees, yet it felt strange. Even though it was as warm as late March, no spring birds had returned. All I heard or saw were pileateds on another long walk in another part of the mountain, an area full of brush that usually held small birds.

Two Canada geese flying overhead

Two Canada geese flying overhead (Photo by Craig Bennett on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On the third day of the GBBC, it was warm, overcast and breezy and two Canada geese croaked past over Sapsucker Ridge at 7:15 in the morning. They could have been part of the local flock way ahead of their usual 10:00 a.m. flyover or possibly early migrants lost from a larger flock.

As I started on my walk for the day, I paused to watch a pair of white-breasted nuthatches chase a downy woodpecker from a yard black walnut tree.

Then on I walked in Sunday’s silence and, at the entrance to Bird Count Trail, a tufted titmouse scolded, throwing its voice in every direction, starting quietly and getting progressively louder as a male downy woodpecker foraged quietly on a nearby tree.

A red-bellied woodpecker called from Greenbrier Trail followed by a pileated. Slowly I climbed up Dogwood Knoll to Sapsucker Ridge as the wind picked up. A pair of turkey vultures floated overhead—the first migrants of the season and three weeks earlier than usual.

A turkey vulture flying over Plummer’s Hollow

A turkey vulture flying over Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A red-tailed hawk flashed past, but it was probably our resident red-tail enjoying the wind. Then a third turkey vulture appeared, reminding me that the Winter Raptor Survey statewide recorded the highest number of turkey vultures ever, although we didn’t see any on our count in nearby Sinking Valley.

By afternoon, it was 62 degrees on the veranda, and Bruce and I sat there, soaking up the sun for a winter that might or might not return. Our resident chipmunk, which has its den hole at the far end of our veranda, approached my feet and then Bruce’s, sniffing his fur-lined slippers before running off. Maybe it was trying to figure out what kind of creature the fake fur was.

The weather was still beautiful, clear and warm the last day of the GBBC. I was hoping to see or hear birds, but I walked a totally silent, bird-less Ten Springs Trail and up a bird-less road. But chipmunks mate-chased throughout the forest.

Even our feeder birds had dwindled—six juncos instead of the usual 40 and no cardinals, goldfinches or blue jays, all of which had been there the previous days. Were they as flummoxed as I was over the “winter” weather or was the open ground providing more natural food for them?

A winter wren taken in February in Delaware

A winter wren taken in February in Delaware (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

All in all I counted 22 species, the lowest number ever despite the turkey vultures. Winter bird diversity continues to dwindle from GBBC to GBBC. Last winter I found no brown creepers, winter wrens, or golden-crowned kinglets, usually dependable GBBC species here.

Still the warm weather continued. The next day as I walked up First Field Trail, I noticed fresh turkey scat. When I started along the Far Field Road, the leader of a flock of wild turkeys saw me before I saw it. They rushed across the road and out of sight so quickly that I didn’t count them thoroughly, although there were at least 30, giving me species number 23 for the mountain but too late for the GBBC.

I sat on Alan’s Bench and watched as a chickadee extracted cone scales from a low-hanging Norway spruce bough with a cluster of cones at its tip. Then the chickadee landed on a nearby branch to extract the paired seeds from the scale. Silently it did this three times before calling “dee-dee-dee” and flying away. Observing bird behavior is always more rewarding to me than counting species.

Off and on I thought I heard tundra swans, but they must have been above the thin cloud cover. Still, I was eager to see those flying angels and early harbingers of spring. As I descended First Field, near the powerline right-of-way, I stood in the wind and counted 160 tundra swans heading northwest.

A mourning cloak in Plummer’s Hollow

A mourning cloak in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The unseasonable weather continued. On the 24th our son Dave reported the first mourning cloak butterfly on Sapsucker Ridge, a full month ahead of our earliest date. It was 78 degrees by mid-afternoon, and later we learned that 4000 temperature records had been broken for this date throughout northern North America.

The first fox sparrows arrived from the south on the 26th, en route to the north, and a pair of mourning doves billed and cooed for 20 minutes on the ground below the feeder.  The following day I watched them copulating on an ash tree limb.

Spring was definitely in the air. Punxsutawney Phil had called it very wrong, at least for February, and, as it turned out, for March as well.

It was indeed an old person’s winter, but whether it was an anomaly or a portent of winters to come remains to be seen.


Putting Up the Feeders

cardinal pair in a snowstorm

cardinal pair below the feeders in a snowstorm

The day after I cleared the trails of branches brought down by Hurricane Sandy, I hung my birdfeeders up for the first time since the previous April. Because bears live on our mountain, I never tempt them with birdseed, having learned years ago that they will go to great lengths to make a meal of them and, in the process, tear feeders apart.

Even so, I bring them in every night until mid-December and again in March and early April.

I only put the feeders out as early as November because I am a veteran Project FeederWatch participant, having signed on for this citizen science project, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the first year it was offered. Last fall was its and my 26th season, and it began on November 10.

Anyone can join this continent-wide effort by paying a small fee and either sending in paper copies of their count or doing it online at the Lab’s website. If the former, feeder watchers count birds at and near their feeders two consecutive days every two weeks. If the latter, as I do, I can count birds two consecutive days every week. Since I have a reasonably small and simple set-up, mostly I glance out my back kitchen door window and keep a tally card nearby.

The idea is to count the maximum number of each species that I see at one time during my count days. Folks with larger and more elaborate feeding areas containing numerous feeders, sources of water and plantings can report all the species attracted to their much larger count site.

In addition to reporting the birds I see, the report asks for when and how long I counted, the depth of snow and/or ice, the kind and length of time of any precipitation, and the low and high temperatures of the days. Once a season I also fill out a detailed description of my count site including the habitat within a half mile, elevation, the kinds of food I supply for the birds, and the plantings and water sources within 100 feet of my feeders.

Usually I give the birds a week before the start of the season to re-discover the large and small tube feeders that hang from our back porch. Last November third it was cold, overcast, and windy, and as soon as my feeders went up and I spread more birdseed below the back steps, the dark-eyed juncos, back from the north, flew in. They were quickly followed by full-time residents—white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and a red-bellied woodpecker. Next, song sparrows and American goldfinches, a few of which are full-time residents, appeared and so did the first white-throated sparrow of the season, also down from the north.

pine siskin and house finch

pine siskin and house finch

The seventh species to appear was a house finch. Here on our mountain they continue to be late fall and early winter visitors and are often gone by February. Project FeederWatch asks that participants note the presence or absence of eye disease in this species and in goldfinches. I’ve never seen this bacterial infection in the latter but sometimes in the former and I wonder if that is why their numbers peak and crash so soon. Years ago, when this western species, accidentally introduced to the East back in 1940, finally arrived on our mountain, they even nested here. But then their numbers crashed when they developed eye disease, and they never nested here again.

The house finch was followed by a black-capped chickadee and a male and female northern cardinal—two more permanent residents.

And then—glory be—25 pine siskins. Could this boreal bird species be the vanguard of an influx of rare northern birds? Every November a few pine siskins and common redpolls are reported by feeder watchers in Pennsylvania and hopes are raised that this will be the winter for a huge irruption of seed-eating birds from Canada. Reports of a widespread failure in seed-crop production, especially of spruces and birches, had already reached bird listservs so I was delighted to welcome the pine siskins.

The eleventh species of the day was one of our Carolina wrens, now successfully wintering as our climate warms and raising families here in the spring and summer.

A migrating swamp sparrow was the twelfth and last species that day. Never before had so many species appeared the first day I put out the feeders.

swamp sparrow

swamp sparrow below the feeders

The following day a fox sparrow appeared. This lovely, large sparrow always visits us on it way north in the summer and south in the winter. Because of its size—seven inches—it could easily dominate the smaller birds as it scratches towhee-like at the seeds below the back steps, but usually this rusty-tailed sparrow is off by itself, completely ignoring the juncos, song sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds.

Number 14 the next day was the gorgeous male purple finch, his head, breast and rump a rosy-red more brilliant and wide-spread than his close relative the house finch. But unlike the house finch, the purple finch belongs in eastern North America.

The female purple finch, like the house finch, is a study in brown and white, but she is chunkier and has a face patched with dark brown and a white stripe behind her eye.

“Don’t you see,” I frequently say to my husband, Bruce, when I try to point out the difference between the two species. But he doesn’t see what seems so obvious to me.

Then number 15, the American tree sparrow, another northern-breeding species, appears, and Bruce throws up his hands, muttering something about lbjs, better known as “little brown jobs” among birders in the know who can distinguish the many similar-appearing sparrow species and other difficult to identify birds such as the often different colored females. Unlike the seed-eating boreal species, tree sparrows are regulars at my feeders every winter. With its rusty-red head and black dot on its white breast it’s an easy sparrow for me to identify.

common redpoll

common redpoll at the feeder, January 2008

Numbers continued to increase day by day and the sixteenth species, on November sixth, was a sharp-shinned hawk. On that day it didn’t catch a meal because all the birds heeded the chickadee’s warning call and fled.

On the seventh a blue jay and a mourning dove joined the feeder birds while the male purple finch continued to hang around. Already, I was anticipating an excellent FeederWatch count.

But the weather warmed up, and it was a true Indian summer day. The second day was too. As a consequence, both the numbers and species were low—two white-breasted nuthatches, five American goldfinches, three tufted titmice, two black-capped chickadees, 12 house finches (one with eye disease), two red-bellied woodpeckers, three dark-eyed juncos, one song sparrow, one cardinal, and one purple finch. At least I had gotten a purple finch, but on the eleventh it was a male and the twelfth a female, yet, according to the rules, I could only count one purple finch. The same was true for the northern cardinals.

The thinking is that since the male and female of most feeder bird species look similar and are counted as a group, those that are sexually dimorphic, such as the cardinals and purple finches, must be treated the same way. Hence, even though I knew that two cardinals and two purple finches came to my feeders, I could only report one unless both sexes appeared together which, in this case, they did not.

sharp-shinned hawk at feeder

Sharp-shinned hawk at the feeder

The weather continued mild throughout the month and into mid-December, much to my disgust as a feeder watcher and the disgust of our deer hunters. I never did see another pine siskin, and my feeder counts remained low except for the juncos that increased to 20 by the end of the month. The sharpie also returned on that last November count, but once again it didn’t score.

The sharpie waited until the day before Christmas. Our Newfoundland daughter-in-law Pam called us to the bow window and pointed out the sharpie eating a female cardinal on the ground below. She took some photos of it in action that even showcased its orange eyes outlined in black.

Having gotten a meal, it was back the last day of December sitting on an ash tree branch close to the bow window in mid-afternoon for over half an hour. It wasn’t even disturbed by Bruce attaching his camera to the front of our spotting scope and taking frame-filling photos with his “digiscope” on the second day of a FeederWatch.

Such are the rewards of keeping a close watch on the birds that visit our feeders throughout the winter months. In addition, the records we send into Project FeederWatch, along with feeder watchers all over the continent, enable ornithologists to better understand the distribution of wintering birds and to track emerging diseases, such as the eye disease, and other problems birds may face.

All photos taken at Marcia’s birdfeeders. The first four are by Dave; the last is by Bruce, taken through his “digiscope” set-up.

Snowy Christmas Bird Count

All over Pennsylvania, Christmas Bird Counts were being postponed or cancelled because of the weather. But the date, I thought, was set in stone.  We had to go ahead despite the snow. After all, participants in Alaska and northern Canada usually counted birds when the weather was challenging.  That’s what I told my son, Steve, who was the Christmas Bird Count Compiler for our Juniata Valley Audubon Society. Our son, Dave, who was vice president of the group, agreed.

Frank Chapman

Frank Chapman

Counting birds for science began 110 years ago when Frank Chapman, the editor of Bird-Lore, appalled by a Christmas tradition of competing to shoot as many birds and other wild creatures as possible, decided to organize folks to count birds instead.  Later, the fledgling National Audubon Society took up the cause. Ever since, growing numbers of participants have counted the numbers and species of birds on one day in a predetermined 15-mile-diameter circle. The period, set by the Society, begins before Christmas and ends a couple days after New Year’s Day. Each group that participates sends their tally to the Society.

Our property sits in a circle centered on Culp in Sinking Valley, a circle that was determined several years before we joined the local Audubon Society. Last year was my 30th CBC on our mountain. Steve and I first started back in December of 1978, when he was 14 and I was 38.  On that day, the wind howled and the snow flurried as Steve and I walked miles.  But we did get a gray catbird in the Far Field thicket.

I only missed one CBC here over the years and that was when Bruce and I joined our youngest son, Mark, also a birder, who had organized a CBC in Honduras during his stint in the Peace Corps. Off and on, as the boys came and went, they were part of the tradition.  Whenever they were all here, the CBC was our favorite part of Christmas.

The woods in a snowstorm, 2009 CBC

The woods in a snowstorm, 2009 CBC

We had had some challenging weather over the years, but last year, for the first time I could remember, we were in the midst of a snow storm.  By dawn, three inches had fallen atop a hardened layer of icy-snow from the previous week, and the weather prediction was dire. The birds (and squirrels) mobbed the feeders at daybreak, and I was kept busy counting the feeder birds and making cheese/mushroom omelets for breakfast. We doubted that our State College friend, Kurt Engstrom, and his enthusiastic, nine-year-old birding son, Carl, both of whom planned to go out with our eldest son Steve to comb the hollows on Sapsucker Ridge, would drive 25 miles in the snow. But Kurt, who is a keen hunter and fisher, was not deterred by the weather. And as soon as Carl arrived, he helped me count the feeder birds.

“A red-bellied woodpecker,” he called out.  “Twenty-seven juncos!”  “A white-breasted nuthatch!”  He was even more excited than Steve and me, and reminded me of the younger Steve who had always considered Christmas Bird Count to be almost as wonderful as Christmas.

feeder birds on black raspberry canes

Juncos, tree sparrows and a female cardinal on black raspberry canes

They headed out a half hour ahead of me — at 8:00. When I was ready to go, it took me several minutes to suit up for the 18-degree weather. Over my long underwear, I put on lined chinos and turtleneck shirt, a knit vest, hooded sweatshirt and finally a heavy, dark-blue, Woolrich winter coat that I have owned for years.  It has ample pockets for my cell phone, water bottle, notebook, pens, and tissues.  Over the hood, I wore an orange duck hunters’ hat that shielded my glasses from the snow.

My binoculars had to go underneath my jacket because they are not waterproof. Each time I saw a bird I had to unzipper my jacket before I could use the binoculars, which hindered my ability to identify birds quickly. I also pulled on my double-thick mittens.  They too had to be removed before I could focus the binocular knob and with the snow streaming down, I did miss some birds.

On my feet were my Gore-Tex lined boots that had failed to keep water out four months after I bought them, but I had on double socks that I hoped would keep my feet reasonably warm and dry. Over the boots, I pulled on my Yak-Traks to prevent me from sliding on the ice beneath the snow.  I also carried a walking stick.  That too had to be juggled when I looked at birds.

Finally, I was ready to go.

“I’ll only walk up to the spruce grove and on to the Far Field,” I told my husband, Bruce, who was in charge of Steve’s four-year-old daughter Elanor.  But just in case, I pointed out the soup I had made for the gang yesterday—a dried lima, tomato, corn and cheese soup supposedly designed for 12 cold, hungry people.

Almost immediately, I spotted a red-tailed hawk sitting on top of a power pole in the middle of First Field, his feathers ruffled by the breeze.  Getting a red-tail on such a day seemed to be a good omen.  But I walked through our deer exclosure and heard not a bird.  I plodded on up to the spruce grove, which usually held golden-crowned kinglets and black-capped chickadees, but it was empty.  Still, I stopped to admire the green boughs white with snow.  This, for me, was as much about being out in a beautiful snowstorm as it was about counting birds.  As I exited the spruce grove, I saw a dark-eyed junco and a northern cardinal.

Red-tailed hawk with meadow vole

Red-tailed hawk with meadow vole

On I went to the Far Field and circled it on Pennyroyal Trail.  I flushed two ruffed grouse and felt vindicated even as I struggled to keep my balance on the sloping trail.  Seduced by the snow, I stumbled past the barrier of fallen limbs that separated the end of the Far Field from a forest and the Second Thicket, catching and then wrenching out one of my feet from a foot-deep hole.  Maybe the thicket would hold some birds.  A couple winters ago I had found an eastern towhee in its midst.  On this day, I heard and saw only a pair of cardinals.

Drawn by the distant cry of a blue jay, I started down an old logging road on our neighbor’s property, glad to see the stream flowing from its beginning below the thicket, even though it had been shorn of its protecting trees a decade or more ago after a poor logging job.  Only brush grew haphazardly along its edges.  Still, with snow covering its wounds, it looked lovely.  I waded through the snow to take a closer look, and birds flew off in all directions.  By the time I retrieved my binoculars, only one bird remained on a distant shrub.  It was a male eastern bluebird, a prize bird for the day and weather.

I continued down the steep road, telling myself that I could always retrace my steps, but I had to get a look at Ruffed Grouse Hollow.  Three decades ago, we had counted dozens of ruffed grouse along this trail during a CBC, hence, our name for it. In that hollow tucked between two steep ridges halfway down the mountain, a small stream burbled.  The trail above the stream had recently been widened and cleared of fallen trees, and I had feared, last summer when I walked it with my granddaughter Eva, that it too would be logged.  But so far it had not been, and I appreciated especially the many mature white pines laden with snow that grew in the midst of the deciduous forest.

Ruffed grouse tracks

Ruffed grouse tracks

I heard several more blue jays and a red-bellied woodpecker.  Then I had a lovely vision of twelve American goldfinches, along with a blue jay, bathing in the stream.  Two doe plowed through the snow and up the ridge. Breaking the charmed stillness, church chimes rang out from the town several miles away in the valley, and I was reminded of the old Christmas carol “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”

By then I knew I was committed to finishing the trail, which ended at a pond at the hunting lodge.  No one was likely to be there, and maybe I could find a place to sit and get out of the snow.  I needed a rest after my three-mile walk.  A picnic table on the back porch provided almost complete protection and served as a mini-birdwatching site as more and more birds fluttered around a shrub that was draped with deer innards like a birds’ Christmas tree. A Carolina wren, several downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, three blue jays, two hairy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch flew in and out, calling and feeding a few feet from where I sat.  The Carolina wren even landed on the porch floor at my feet.

The snowfall thinned and then thickened again, and I was reluctant to leave this alluring place miles from the nearest habitation.  An American crow cawed, the first I had heard all day, as if to lead me onward. Regretfully, I left the porch sanctuary and walked uphill to open, windswept fields where only a dozen juncos pecked in the stubble, living up to their snowbirds’ nickname.

It was a long, hard slog back on the upper trail during which I neither saw nor heard any birds.  By that time, my arthritic feet hurt, and I was feeling my age.  Still, no pain could take away from my time outside on such a magical day.

Finally, I reached the Far Field and watched a pileated woodpecker working over a red maple tree and juncos foraging in the grasses.  On the Far Field Road, I sat down on Coyote Bench to rest before walking the final half-mile home.  At first, it was silent.  Then, I heard the call of a northern flicker.  It was bird number 17 for me and another gift this gracious day.

Grooming pileated woodpeckers

Grooming pileated woodpeckers

When I reached home, Elanor, Carl and Kurt were sledding and tobogganing with our son Dave on First Field.  Carl and Kurt had wisely returned after a couple hours and son Steve had finished his section of the mountain, had had lunch with the others, and had headed out in his car to check the town and river.  I had been gone almost six hours, walked six miles through what had become six inches of snow and was ready for a very late lunch and pot of tea.

The feeder counters had added several more species including, in Carl’s handwriting — white-brested (sic) nuthatch, cardnial (sic), goldfinh (sic), Carolina wern (sic), downy woodpecker, and blue jay — to the list I had started at dawn. His spelling may have been a little shaky, but his identifications were spot on.

Altogether, counting the feeder birds, I had 22 species.  Steve added another ten, giving us a respectable 32.  Not bad for a snowy day.  Best of all, we had introduced Carl to his first Christmas Bird Count.  May he have many, many more during his lifetime.

October snow

October snowman“Nanna, it’s snowing!”

My first thought was, no, it can’t be.  It’s only the fifteenth of October.  We’ve never had snow this early. Why, last year our first frost was October 19. Surely it won’t last, this spring onion snow in October.

Big, fat flakes fell and Elanor, our four-year-old granddaughter, and her Uncle Dave rushed out to build a snowman.  They wanted to have it finished before a pair of California cousins arrived for the afternoon.

They managed to scrape up enough snow to build a somewhat rickety snowman.  Our son, Dave, who has treasured every snow since he was a small boy in Maine, understood Elanor’s delight in such a rare occurrence.  She came in soaked, cold, but happy with their creation, which they had capped with an orange Hoss’s hat. And her young cousins were mightily impressed by the snow and the snowman. Unfortunately, because they were wearing canvas shoes fit for the sunny warmth of California, they were forced to play indoors while the snow continued to fall.

Everyone, including Elanor and her father, Steve, left at 5:00 p.m. instead of staying for dinner.  Already, a couple of wet inches covered the ground and later, when I settled down to sleep with my window open, I heard the ominous cracking of tree branches outside.  Then, at 3:30 a.m., the power flashed off.  The phone line was also dead.  For the second time in as many days Bruce cranked up the new generator we had bought a couple years ago, because we were convinced that global climate change would lead to many more power outages as strange weather patterns emerged.

Unlike our old, smelly, noisy, diesel-fueled generator, this new, gas-powered one is quiet, odorless, and handles most of our appliances.  Still, I had to do a little juggling whenever I used the stove, making me more mindful of just how much we depend on electricity to power our lives.

As I looked outside, I could see that the top half of our hackberry tree had snapped, one of the front yard black locust trees had lost another huge limb, a branch of the juniper tree outside my bedroom window had broken off, and our lilac and forsythia shrubs were bent over from the weight of several inches of heavy snow.

October snowstorm 1: fallen red maple limbBruce walked the quarter mile down to the forks on our access road while I made breakfast.  On our battery-powered radio I heard dire warnings about staying out of the woods because limbs were crashing down everywhere. Indeed, Bruce was relieved to make it back in one piece after being blocked by a tangle of fallen trees near our little plank bridge.

He called our caretaker on his cell phone, which was our only tie to the outside world, and Troy told him that the previous evening he and his wife, Paula, had driven down the road after dinner to get some groceries.  They had had to move branches out of  their way as they drove back up the road but were stopped halfway up the hollow by a huge red oak spanning the road. He pulled their car into the Dogwood Knoll pullout and retrieved his chainsaw from the trunk.

After he cleared the road, their car wouldn’t start.  By that time trees and branches were cracking and breaking like rifle fire throughout the forest.  They called their daughter in town to rescue them and drive them and their groceries up to their house.  But there were so many branches and trees down by then that Troy spent several hours clearing the road before they made it home.

More trees and branches had fallen overnight, and they set to work cutting their way back down the road, determined to open it for us.  It took them the entire day.  In the meantime, Dave walked up Laurel Ridge, but branches continued to break and fall under what was the earliest and heaviest snowstorm ever in our area.

Later in the morning I chased little birds — yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows — around First Field as still more limbs and trees crashed down in the woods.  The birds were after the many weed seeds in our 37-acre meadow.  In places I measured five inches of snow with my walking stick.  All the goldenrod and asters bowed over with snow.

As fog rolled down from the spruce grove at the top of the field, I turned homeward.  Eastern towhees called forlornly from the woods.  And Dave reported that a hopeful mourning dove, remembering last winter’s bounty from our bird feeders, had landed below the back porch.  But I didn’t have any birdseed, because I never set out my feeders until early November.

October snow on shadbush (serviceberry) leaves

snow on shadbush (serviceberry) leaves

By afternoon, it had warmed to 34 degrees and snow had melted off most of the gold and orange tree leaves.  Bruce and I walked down the road late in the afternoon.  Troy and Paula had cleared most of the 14 fallen trees and innumerable branches.  We were appalled at the damage — our favorite white oak on the charcoal hearth had shed many branches, several red and black oaks had split and fallen across the road, their branches crowded with still-green leaves, numerous red maples — all gold and red — had either broken completely or shed many branches, tulip poplar tree branches covered with bright yellow leaves littered the road in many places, and a few chestnut oak branches had split off their large trunks and fallen.  Leaves and branches clogged the stream and woods.  But once we reached the hemlock zone, about halfway down the road, there was little damage, so we headed back home.

As we rounded the last curve in our road, we were relieved to see a light shining in the guesthouse.  After 14 hours, our electricity had been restored, although the telephone lines were still down. Surely, the storm and its effects were over.

But the next day, the thermometer was back down to 32 degrees, and a light snow fell that thickened and clung to the leaves once again as we watched from the breakfast table.  A winter wren twittered around the outside cellar door in search of tidbits.

October snow on witch hazel blossoms

snow on witch hazel blossoms

I went out in mid-morning while it was snowing heavily again.  The forest was a palette of white, gold, and green. Black birch and witch hazel trees were bent over and a few black gum trees had broken in the woods both inside and outside the deer exclosure.

Large branches littered the Far Field Road along with occasional whole trees—red maple, sugar maple, hickory, chestnut oak, and a split black cherry. Once again snow piled up on  the leaves and branches of standing trees, and after I had walked over to the Sapsucker Ridge Trail and across the black-locust-bowed Far Field, I heard the smash of a tree or large branch on the Far Field Road.  Nervous about my safety, I tried to hasten along the ridgetop trail but bent over and sometimes broken striped maple and witch hazel trees as well as a few fallen red maple trees blocked my way and forced me to detour around them.

Relieved to reach the sanctuary of the Norway spruce grove unscathed, I stood under the protection of the thickest limbs, and watched heavy, wet flakes sift down as golden-crowned kinglets fluttered near.  A flock of mature and immature cedar waxwings landed on the tallest Norway spruce spire and continually flitted from branch to branch in what appeared to be a dance known only to them.  Or maybe the “dancers” with crests, were trying to encourage the crestless youngsters, who looked miserable, to bear up under the wet snow.

I heard a few more cracks from the forest and after a silent respite in the sheltering grove, I elected to walk down First Field. At the Sapsucker Ridge edge of the field, a Carolina wren and  white-throated sparrow sang briefly while many other little birds, most of which were white-throats,  fluttered into and out of cover.  The forest near the exclosure dripped with melting snow even though it continued snowing.  By the time I returned home, the thermometer was back up to 34 degrees and the snow had thinned, but still it fell even though it no longer clung to the leaves.

a red oak brought down by the snow

a red oak brought down by the snow

The following day it gradually cleared and warmed up.  But when I set out for my walk at 9:00, there were still a couple inches of wet snow on the ground and it smelled like winter.

Margaret’s Woods rang with singing white-throated sparrows. Red maple and striped maple branches blanketed the ground, but most of the large red maple branches, covered with gold, orange and scarlet leaves, were unbroken and unbowed. A fully leaved catalpa tree had split, and numerous black locust trees had broken and fallen.  But sun shone through the forest, and our world was bright and glittering once again.

The first steep slope on Greenbrier Trail, where it is always the coldest during the winter, was blocked with broken tops and branches of red maples, A black cherry and a black locust tree, both with green leaves, also had lost their tops across the trail.  The invasive tree, ailanthus, had fallen and deer had stripped off their green leaves. Hercules’ club, bent and broken, still covered with green leaves and clusters of berries, had had most of their berries eaten by deer, judging by the tracks in the snow.  Witch hazel trees, in full yellow bloom and still retaining green and yellow leaves, had split in many places.

Farther along the trail, the largest black cherry tree was broken in half  One of the few black oaks left by the logging operation in 1991 had also lost many limbs.  Hickories, too, had taken major hits, their butter-yellow leaves clinging to branches on the ground.  A few cucumber magnolias had also toppled.

But all the while I absorbed the damage to the trees, the birds rejoiced in the return of autumn. A ruffed grouse drummed.  Robins “tut-tuted” in the distance.  Eastern towhees called from every direction.  Several golden-crowned kinglets, a ruby-crowned kinglet and a blue-headed vireo foraged overhead in unscathed trees.

Day after day I noted the damage along our trails.  Surprisingly, at the top of the mountain, on Laurel Ridge Trail, only a few branches had broken off.  But halfway down Laurel Ridge, on Black Gum Trail, the scarlet, chestnut, red and black oak branches had been torn from their moorings.  Many trees were topped of 10 to 20 feet.  A few trees had split near their bases.  Several oaks had little left but a 10-foot-tall, branchless snag.  At the confluence of Pit Mound and Black Gum trails, a tangle of topped chestnut and red oaks blocked the way.  An enormous scarlet oak and a smaller red oak sprawled across the trail.  The rest of Black Gum Trail was similarly strewn with oak trees and branches.

As Bernd Heinrich wrote in his book Summer World about an October snowstorm in Maine, “Trees that retained their leaves paid a steep price.  Those that had shed their leaves suffered no damage.  The thin, young maples and oaks in the woods around our house were snapped in half or bent to the ground.  Similarly, old sugar maples with heavy trunks had huge limbs broken off, and many of their other limbs were bent and ready to snap.”

Unfortunately, none of our trees had shed their leaves and so many species were damaged.  Still, from Alan’s Bench, Laurel Ridge looked the same as usual and trees, in their autumnal colors, glowed in the sunlight. I moved to the sunny side of the spruce grove and sat on a log.  A ruffed grouse erupted from the spruces.  Black-capped chickadees called from the deciduous woods below.  Although it was warming fast in the sun, remnants of crunchy snow still remained.

Then suddenly a young black bear ran toward me from the woods.  Although I remained still, it caught my scent at 60 feet, wheeled around, and ran back down the hillside.  I walked down First Field Trail through and over a red and gold tapestry on the trail, in the woods, on the snow, and overhead.  Two hermit thrushes ate wild grapes at the edge of First Field. A pileated woodpecker, unaware of me, landed and foraged on a nearby tree.  The forest filled up with robins.  Autumn had returned after our brush with winter.

autumn foliage bent under the weight of snow

All photos by Dave Bonta. Click on images to see larger versions on Flickr.