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.

 

Winter Porkies

porcupine up a tree in a snowstorm

Porcupine in a snowstorm, below the Road to the Far Field

Deep winter and at last a good tracking snow had fallen. While I may puzzle over some tracks, there is no mistaking those of porcupines. They plow through the snow on their naked, flat, pigeon-toed feet like miniature bulldozers, and when the tracks freeze, deer, opossums and foxes use them as winter highways.

When we first moved to our central Pennsylvania mountaintop in 1971, seeing a porcupine was a rare occurrence, but over the last couple decades porcupine numbers on our square mile of property have proliferated. During several days in early January last winter I found abundant tracks and numerous porcupines along the trails and in a variety of trees. Tracks wandered into and out of our three-acre deer exclosure, in and around our Norway spruce grove, and along the Far Field Road. Porcupines sat high in trees beside our hollow road, on top of Sapsucker Ridge, down in Roseberry Hollow and near the top of a Norway spruce tree. The latter was snoozing as its quills whitened in the falling snow.

Without leaves on the trees I could see many debarked crown branches. On Dogwood Knoll I found tiny pieces of bark at the base of a large chestnut oak tree, a sign that a porcupine had been eating the inner bark of one of the favorite trees of some of our porcupines. They also like red oak and sugar maple. Because they prefer small branches near the tops of these trees, we rarely lose a hardwood tree to their winter gnawing.

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

But our Norway spruce grove is porcupine central in the winter. Like white spruce further north, Norway spruce is a favorite winter food for porcupines. In addition, it provides excellent protection from winter weather. Porcupines like hemlocks too, especially for protection, and they eat the needles and twigs but not the bark because it is too strong in tannins. Our hollow hemlocks used to be popular with porcupines in the deep winter, but as the hemlocks have thinned and, in some cases, died from the ravages of the hemlock wooly adelgids, porcupines, ever adaptable, have switched to other trees, most notably our Norway spruces.

Porcupine tracks led into the grove from Sapsucker Ridge and the Far Field Road. By late January numerous spruce trees bore fresh tooth marks from gnawing porcupines. Porcupines move slowly in the woods, just as I do, so they are easy for me to track. Unlike colder, northern places, where they are out mostly at night, here they are out and about both night and day. No doubt our porcupines were especially hungry last winter because the acorns, one of their favorite autumn foods, had failed for three years.

One day I surprised a porcupine sitting on the snow-covered Far Field Road. When I approached it, it stood up and slowly climbed a large sugar maple tree. Fifteen days later, in early February, I followed what may have been the same porcupine from the base of the spruce grove to the Far Field Road. The trail ended at the entrance to a hollow, fallen log below the road where a porcupine turned its back to me.

According to Uldis Roze, who has spent 24 years studying porcupines in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, porcupine fur has excellent insulating properties, which allows them to use hollow logs, trees, and rock crevices as winter dens. Usually they turn their backs to the den openings, sit with their bodies propped up by their tails, and hold their front paws against their chests. They turn their hind paws sideways so their naked foot pads don’t touch the ground. When resting in high trees, they roll up into balls and can withstand extremely cold temperatures. No wonder they are able to live as far north as northern Alaska, Quebec, and Labrador, in fact, at or beyond the tundra line.

A young porcupine in deep snow by Martin Male

A young porcupine in deep snow (photo by Martin Male, CC licence)

By mid-February, the so-called “polar vortex” was not only dropping our thermometer to as low as ten degrees below zero on some days, but it began to snow in earnest. And again I found the same porcupine tucked into the hollow log along the Far Field Road, its back white with snow.

With 18 inches of snow on the ground, I broke out my snowshoes and headed up to the spruce grove. As I broke trail around the grove, I saw fresh porcupine tracks and then spotted a porcupine at the base of a spruce tree. It started up the tree when it realized I had seen it, but it didn’t climb more than a few feet before it went around to the back of the trunk as if once out of sight, I would forget it was there. Then I noticed a circle from its body at the base of the tree as well as a pile of cylindrical, gray and/or brown, inch to an inch-and-a-half-long porcupine scat (droppings). It must have been there for some time.

I also broke trail along the Far Field Road and encountered the porcupine in the same hollow log after a night of stripping bark from the lower spruce grove trees, just as the one I saw earlier specialized in the upper part of the grove.

Every time I passed the Far Field Road hollow log for most of February, the porcupine was either in the log or plodding its way back to it. And then tragedy struck. On February 27 I found a dead porcupine behind the spruce grove, still clinging to the thin branch of a black locust tree. Apparently, it had fallen from the large spruce it was gnawing and had broken the locust branch off on its way to the ground. Probably it had died sometime after it had hit the icy snow since there were puddles of urine around it.

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, 7 months later

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, seven months later

Roze says, in his book The North American Porcupine, that porcupines risk injury and death from falling out of trees because they are relatively heavy and prefer to feed far out on branches that are often brittle. I know I’ve watched them foraging on hardwood tree branches, expecting them to fall any moment as they crawl farther and farther out on a limb that bends with their weight. Sometimes porcupines do fall, but they are usually badly hurt. For instance, one of Roze’s study animals had a series of injuries that he called “consistent with falling belly-first out of a tree.”

According to Roze, another researcher, Wendell Dodge in western Massachusetts, who autopsied 200 porcupines back in 1961, found healed leg, hip, and rib fractures, broken teeth, injured eyes and ears, hernias, and soft-tissue injuries. One even had a four-inch-long pine branch in its abdomen.

A week later, in early March, I checked on the dead porcupine and found a live one sitting next to it on the ground under the large spruce tree almost as if it was holding a late wake for it. Eventually it shuffled over to the spruce trunk, deftly climbed its mostly bark-stripped trunk, and moved far out on the limb.

I followed other porcupine tracks from the upper section of the grove over to the neighbor’s clearcut on Sapsucker Ridge. There I saw a small but old chestnut oak and a bent, larger one, both of which had debarked branches. Beneath them were bark pieces and scat littering the ground. I continued following the tracks for 20 feet to the remains of a hollow tree log left by the loggers. At its entrance was a huge pile of porcupine scat. I knelt down on the snow and peered inside the log. A porcupine was tucked into it.

Both log dens were 200 feet or so from the spruce grove. While porcupines wander much greater distances during the summer, their temporary winter dens, which they use for an average of 23 days, are usually within 300 feet of their food trees. The spruce grove porcupines followed that pattern.

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

The same porcupine appeared three days later at the base of the large spruce where the other porcupine had died and reluctantly climbed the tree when I spoke to it. It looked as if that beautiful tree had been completely girdled high up. So too had at least four other large spruces. But according to Gary Gillmore, a state forester, Norway spruces throw out new limbs if they have been topped.

By March 10 I was seeing as many as four porcupines feeding in our hollow hemlock trees, leaving nipped twigs and scat on our road. Although this was still winter food, probably they had left dens upslope early and were using hemlock habitat for shelter, meager though it was.

Near the end of March, I found only two porcupines in hardwood trees and they were eating buds. The rest seemed to have disappeared once spring arrived. But I had enjoyed my porcupine winter and the chance to learn a little about how they survive the cold months.


All photos taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta, except where indicated.

Midwinter Cranes

Sandhill cranes at SGL 284 in western PA

Sandhill cranes at State Game Lands #284 in western PA (photo by Dave Inman, CC licence)

I never thought I would see sandhill cranes less than 20 miles from my home in central Pennsylvania. Yet there I was last January, sitting in our car with my husband Bruce, watching five sandhill cranes through our scope as they foraged in a small wetland near State College.

When the word went out on January 4 that Alyssia Church had discovered the cranes at Fairbrook Marsh and on nearby farm fields, I was surprised. At first I didn’t bother to check them out, because I am not what is known in birder parlance as a “chaser.”

Then our son Steve called to tell me that he had seen them on the farm field, so the next time we headed for State College, we took an alternate route and located the cranes where Steve had described. But because they were several hundred feet from the country road where we were parked, and we had not brought our scope, we didn’t get a good view of them.

We decided to try again and on a cold, clear January 23, this time armed with our scope, we scanned the field. There was no sign of them. I was not deterred, though, and Bruce drove slowly along the road for a mile or so toward the marsh while I kept a careful watch out the window. Finally, I spotted large gray blobs that looked like rocks out in the marsh behind a clump of beige grasses.

“There they are,” I said as I peered closer through my binoculars.

Sandhill Crane at Middle Creek WMA, eastern PA

Sandhill crane at Middle Creek WMA, eastern PA (Henry T. McLin, CC licence)

We parked in a church parking lot that overlooked the marsh and set up our scope. One head popped up, followed by a second. One of them preened its feathers. Then the pair spread and flapped their wings, a signal for all five to stand up and walk together on their long, elegant legs. At five feet tall they stood out against the marsh grasses, like gray ghosts, as the water in the wetland steamed in the cold. Next they moved to another spot where they were in the open, giving us an excellent view of them.

Repeatedly, they poked their long, pointed bills into the ice-covered marsh in search of food, most likely worms, insects, and even mice. As they foraged, a crane remained on alert and stood on one leg. The five moved together like a team or a single organism. All were clothed in gray feathers with beige highlights and seemed oblivious to the seven degrees temperature as well as to the busy rural roads on three sides of the marsh. Even more surprising was the housing development complete with road, backyards, and a man walking a leashed dog above the marsh and cranes.

We watched the cranes for nearly an hour, moving nearer beside the rural road overlooking the marsh and setting up our scope. But the cranes remained unperturbed as they fed, preened, and occasionally sat back down on the frozen ground.

Later, I learned that sandhill cranes during the winter spend most of their time in so-called maintenance activities—foraging, moving, resting and comfort and that their comfort activities are preening, head rubbing and scratching, and body shaking, although preening is their most common comfort activity. They use an alert investigative posture when inquisitive about something nearby. Adult pairs or family units are especially alert. Since family units stay together from hatch time in summer until the following spring, the five cranes at Fairbrook Marsh appeared to be a mated pair, two offspring, and a second adult.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the eastern greater sandhill cranes (Grus Canadensis tabida), one of six subspecies of sandhill cranes, had finally arrived in our area of central Pennsylvania. After all, they had been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania, where a pair first appeared in spring and summer of 1991 in Plain Grove Township, Lawrence County, for two decades. A second pair, or perhaps the same pair, reappeared in northeastern Lawrence and southeastern Mercer counties again in the breeding season in 1992.

Sandhill Cranes on a crisp December Morning by Dave Inman

Sandhill cranes on a crisp December morning, Washington, PA (Dave Inman, CC licence)

The following winter, on January 3, a flock of 25-30 sandhill cranes fed for half an hour on corn in a partially harvested field in Plain Grove Township. This marked the first time a large flock of sandhill cranes had been seen in Pennsylvania. Since then, they’ve been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania and, as the flock has increased over the years, in eastern Pennsylvania especially Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Today they have been spotted in 30 counties at all times of the year and breed not only in northwestern Pennsylvania, but in northeastern Sullivan and Bradford counties. Ironically, according to Doug Gross, Endangered and Non-game Bird Section Supervisor for the Game Commission, they have bred in “Crane Swamp” not far from Sullivan County’s breeding area near Dushore. The swamp, though, was named for great blue herons, which are called “blue cranes” by many rural Pennsylvania folks.

The first evidence of breeding sandhill cranes in the Commonwealth was documented on August 4, 1993 when Nancy W. Rodgers and Lois Cooper found the first young crane with its parents off Plain Grove Road in a pasture near large old trees.

“We could see the red on the heads of the two adults and the third one had a rust-colored head with light area above and below the eye. They were feeding as they walked south,” Rodgers wrote in Pennsylvania Birds.

The following day Rodgers discovered them a mile southeast of the first pasture in a field with a stream. She watched as “one adult caught a small animal and slowly killed it by beating it on the ground and stabbing it with its bill. When the animal finally died and lay on the grass, the second adult ate it.”

In all likelihood, the pair with their young had emerged from a nearby wetland where they had built a large nest of surrounding vegetation, which they had collected and tossed over their shoulders to form a mound above standing water, back in April. In it the female had laid two large, light olive-colored eggs speckled with darker brown. Both sexes had shared incubation duties over a 30 day period.

Even though the young can leave the nest eight hours after hatching, usually they wait 24 hours for the first hatched or continue to wait until the second one hatches before moving. Still, they stay well-hidden within a wetland until the young are 90 days old. If the food supply is abundant, two young survive. If not, only one chick does. Both parents care for and feed their offspring.

Sandhill Cranes in grass by Dave Inman

Sandhill cranes in western PA (Dave Inman, CC licence)

Rodgers had calculated that the pair, if they had young, would be emerging from the wetland in early August, and she was right. Over the following years, despite searching, it took until 2009, when Bonnie Dersham, while surveying for Massasauga rattlesnakes on SGL #294 in Mercer County, found a recently hatched crane chick and unhatched egg on a nest on May 5, according to Gene Wilhelm’s account in the definitive Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. That same year, in the Pymatuning region, Land Management Group Supervisor Jerry Bish and Northwest Region Land Management Supervisor Jim Donatelli discovered a nest with two two-day-old crane chicks.

With so many bird species declining, the spread of the eastern greater sandhill cranes, which originally bred in nests in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and southern Ontario, to as far east as Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York state, has been a pleasant surprise, especially since all other crane species, worldwide, are in decline and sometimes number very few birds including our whooping crane.

Doug Gross and other ornithologists attribute their great expansion to more understanding of the importance of wetlands as well as the cranes’ ability to feed on waste grains and whatever small prey is available in their nesting and wintering areas. Most eastern greater sandhill cranes still migrate south in the winter to southern Georgia and central Florida, but, as our wintering cranes have shown, even temperatures far below zero, as we experienced last January, do not faze them. Their sharp beaks repeatedly broke through the ice and their feathers insulated them from the frozen ground they sat and walked on it. This particular little flock left Fairbrook Marsh at the end of January perhaps for warmer climes.

Decades ago Bruce and I had traveled both to Willcox, Arizona and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to watch thousands of wintering sandhill cranes, knowing we would never see this species in Pennsylvania. How wrong we were!

Sandhill Crane over SGL #284 by Dave Inman

Sandhill crane over PA State Game Lands #284 (Dave Inman, CC licence)

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.