Last day of the Great Backyard Bird Count
February 19. Seven degrees at dawn and clear but quickly warming up to eleven degrees. In the middle of my daily exercises, Bruce came into the bedroom to say, “I think I heard a bluebird singing.” Could it be? I rushed outside, binoculars in hand, listened and scanned the telephone wires. Nothing! Then I heard it. Again I scanned the wires and this time I saw, perched on the wire above the bluebird box, a male bluebird, its gorgeous blue back silhouetted against the snowy field. That’s the first one we’ve seen in several months. Is he a sign of spring?
All the birds seem activated today. As I stood coatless on the veranda, a crow cawed overhead. Later, snowshoeing up First Field, I heard a singing Carolina wren and several titmice. In fact, titmice have been in full song mode for weeks.
Sitting on the fallen tree behind the spruce grove, I heard a pileated woodpecker and in the grove itself juncos “ticked” and chickadees “dee-deed.”
The snowshoe trails have firmed up and the going was easy. Downies and hairies “peek, peeked” and once a chickadee sang his “fee-a-bee” song. At the Far Field a deer snorted and a cardinal sang a quiet “pretty” at the Far Field thicket. I also heard chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, blue jays, and Carolina wrens. The latter, it seems, have made it through the cold snap. But I wonder about the eastern towhee. I snowshoed on over to the Second Thicket and sat on a log for twenty minutes, listening for any towhee call, but I heard nothing.
Snowshoeing on Pennyroyal Trail above the Far Field I did find three cedar waxwings feeding silently in the European buckthorn tree above the old red fox den. In the snow beneath the tree, two juncos and a white-throat fed on the fallen fruit. A pair of cardinals called back and forth. A song sparrow flew up with a junco along Pennyroyal Trail. I also heard another bluebird call. Altogether I had two more bird species, plus more numbers, to report to the Great Backyard Bird Count. During the last four days I’ve managed to find 26 species on the mountain.
A fat porcupine debarked a tree branch below the Far Field, the first one I’ve seen in several months.
Visitors to the Feeder
February 20. By mid-afternoon, it was 50 degrees in the sun on the veranda, and I took my afternoon tea seated in my chair, soaking up the sun and listening to the steady drip of snow melt in the drainpipe.
A smallish opossum ate birdseeds on the back porch steps at sunset.
February 22. Thirty-four degrees at dawn and mostly overcast. An all-time high record 32 mourning doves at the feeder area this morning along with seven gray squirrels. I also spotted the first chipmunk out and running along a log in the flat area below the back porch slope. Both titmice and Carolina wrens sang in the dawn.
February 26. Eighty juncos at the feeder area–another all-time record.
I waited until afternoon to set out and tried to walk in my old snowshoe tracks that I could barely discern under a couple inches of new, wet snow. Whenever I missed the tracks, I sank into four inches or so of snow.
Gradually, it began to clear. I sat on Coyote Bench and heard a guttural noise, probably from a squirrel. I looked up to see a white and gray bird flapping up from the valley. I managed to get my binoculars on it and saw almost totally white underparts with black wing tips–a male northern harrier. It continued on up over the mountainside and out of sight.
February 27. On this second day of Project FeederWatch, I had my first ever crow at the feeder, probably the same lone crow that was hanging out in the yard the other day.
Photo: Marcia on snowshoes, Feb. 24 (Dave Bonta)
I’ve been updating my journal from the notes I take in my pocket notebook. Here are some excerpts from the first half of February.
Bucks hanging out together, still wearing antlers
February 3. Three degrees at dawn and absolutely clear. Winds cleaned the air and lowered the temperature throughout the moonlit night.
At first, when I started out at 9:30, the wind was still, the sun bright, and the temperature eight degrees. A few birds twittered along Greenbrier Trail, but none showed themselves. While I was sitting on Turkey Bench, writing notes, the wind picked up.
I met our hunter friend Jeff Scott coming up the road and we stopped to chat at the big pulloff. Suddenly Jeff whispered, “Two deer coming down the mountainside.”
I turned to look as they paused at the stream. One was clearly a six-point buck, the second either a four- or six-point. The first one leaped the stream, crossed the road in front of us, and bounded up Sapsucker Ridge. Jeff struggled to get his digital camera out of his pocket and took a couple photos of the back of the six-point. The other buck bounded back up Laurel Ridge. We continued talking, and a few minutes later Jeff said quietly, “Here comes another deer.” He saw the antlers before I did. This one was a spike, although his spikes were nicely curved. He had obviously followed his buddies’ trail, proof to me that bucks hang out together in the winter. Jeff was surprised that they all still had their antlers, and when I told this tale to the visiting Shoup brothers the following day, they too expressed amazement that they still had their antlers.
Jeff headed up Rhododendron Trail, intent on finding where the bucks had come from, while I continued on up the road. The stream, although icy in places, still provides the only running water for thristy deer on the mountain, now that ponds are frozen solid.
Official start of sunbathing season on Brush Mountain
February 6. Two below zero again this morning. Three blue jays came to the feeders.
It was five above when I went out at 9:15 in the bright sunlight. Birds sang, especially chickadees and titmice, but I also thought I heard a Carolina wren answering a titmouse. Apparently they haven’t all perished in the cold, then. A pileated woodpecker drummed.
Along the Far Field Road the road bank is exposed and juncos and titmice scratched in the leaves. A pair of nuthatches landed on nearby trees; a woodpecker tapped and a red-bellied called. I started my official sunbathing season by lying against the bank, and remained warm except for my feet.
I warmed up my feet by walking over to the Second Thicket, following a highway of deer tracks. That area too is protected, and I sat against a fallen log listening for “toe-hee,” which I heard after a couple minutes. So the over-wintering towhee is still alive!
Steve told us that the river is frozen solid.
Woolly adelgids confirmed in Plummer’s Hollow
February 7. Two degrees at dawn and a skim of snow on the back porch. I walked down the road this partially sunny but cold and windy day.
Below the big pull-off, I counted more than fifty American goldfinches feeding on the black birch cones of one tree. A few more goldfinches and chickadees fed on hemlock cones nearby. Behind the hemlocks, among the hurricane-felled trees, titmice and cardinals dug in the exposed leaves while white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker mined tree trunks.
I crunched over the hundreds of fallen hemlock cones and paused to sit beneath a small hemlock overhanging Waterthrush Bench. It was so cold that my pen refused to write. Cold air drains down our north-facing hollow so it remains the coldest place on the mountain.
Idly, I glanced up at the undersides of the hemlock branches, and my heart froze. There were little white spots all along the stems, just as in the photos of a beginning woolly adelgid buildup. I whipped out my hand lens and studied those telltale, woolly tufts. Then I looked more carefully and found other infested branches. No wonder the hemlocks have looked thinner lately.
Farther up the hollow road, in an isloated cluster of small hemlock trees, I found more woolly adelgids. So, the jig is up. I can no longer kid myself that the branch of white tufts that I saw along the Ten Springs Extension several weeks ago was my imagination.
Difficult as it has been to mourn the loss of older relatives and friends over the years, such deaths are expected, as is my own in not too many years. But to lose a whole species! First, we lost the butternut trees. They were few and scattered, though we were all attached to the one overhanging the guesthouse. It was the last to go.
Now, my beloved hemlocks. I must admit I cried as I contemplated the hollow, especially in winter, without them. How dreary will be the loss of their evergreen color, their boughs bent beneath the snow. Soon only a few white pines will color the monochromatic winter palette.
Possible goshawk sighting
February 11. Seven degrees at dawn and mostly overcast. I headed up First Field Trail, hearing only a distant woodpecker drumming. As I reached the Far Field, I looked up to see a raptor flap off. All I saw were its white underparts and long wings, and it looked larger than a redtail. Could it have been a northern goshawk? I got a second glimpse of it and still had the impression of gray and white.
Later, I checked my new Thayer birding software, and after studying many photos of the bird, it seemed the most likely choice. After all, the only northern goshawk I ever saw here — an immature — was in the very same place!
Great Backyard Bird Count
February 16. Five degrees and windy, but mostly clear. The white-throated sparrow brought a friend to the feeder area. Also, goldfinches appeared and added to a good feeder-count for the first day of the GBBC.
The tractor still wouldn’t start, despite a battery charger on for 24 hours, but the bulldozer did, and Bruce started down near 11:00 a.m. I followed at 12:00. It was hard going because the bulldozer makes a rough track, but where Bruce had scraped down to the ground with the blade, in the middle of the road, seven juncos foraged. So too did a white-throat and a female cardinal. The latter searched for and ate fallen tulip tree seeds.
The hollow was beautiful, heaped with snow. In places the stream disappeared beneath the white cover. In other places, it flowed around snow-covered rocks or slid beneath shards of ice. In the hemlocks I counted six chickadees, some titmice, nuthatches and downies. Farther down the hollow road, I found a hairy woodpecker and heard a pileated woodpecker. Altogether, a good start for the GBBC.
On my way back up, I encountered Bruce as he approached from behind on the bulldozer. I tried to keep ahead of him, but the ruts and uneven areas were too difficult to walk fast on. Finally, I stepped aside and let the belching machine past. Despite many layers of clothes, Bruce was very cold and red-faced because he was sitting while I was exercising hard and even threw my hood off several times.
February 17. It was 29 degrees by the time I got outside in early afternoon. I snowshoed across First Field and heard a raven. Dave had broken trail along Greenbrier Trail for me and had heard, this morning, a Carolina wren. He also saw a large bird of prey near the feeders — the Cooper’s hawk, no doubt.
In Margaret’s Woods, I noticed that the chestnut oak trunks were riddled with gypsy moth egg cases. I sure hope we don’t have a bad outbreak of them this summer.
Two cardinals called along Greenbrier Trail, and I heard a downy in the distance.
On the way up the road, I found a spot on the bank where junco feathers were scattered all around, as the accipiters do when they pluck their victims. That Cooper’s hawk must have scored.
February 18. Nineteen degrees and flurries at dawn. First twenty-six mourning doves, then sixty juncos came into the feeder area, along with some squirrels, five tree sparrows, two white-throats, and four cardinals.
I started out in a heavy snow shower and saw a red-tail take off from the side of First Field. I followed the snowshoe tracks of the other day up into the spruce grove. Gradually, the flurry subsided and the sun shone. I broke trail on Sapsucker Ridge Trail and flushed a deer. Then in the Far Field woods I picked up a golden-crowned kinglet, a hairy and downy woodpeckers, a white-breasted nuthatch, and several chickadees.
I so enjoyed breaking trail in the virgin snow this Sunday morning! I can’t understand why more people don’t get outside and move in this glorious weather. The shadows on the snow alone are worth the effort, not to mention the distant, bluish-white, snow-covered mountains seen through the open forest, the fallen trees piled high with snow, the clouds racing in the wind, opening and closing patches of blue sky and sunlight like the lens of a camera, the bits of bird life still striving and thriving despite the wind and cold.
I cleaned snow off a fallen tree and sat on it, my hot seat buffering my rear end, as the birds moved closer. Three chickadees bounced on limbs, gleaning minute insects from thin branches. A nuthatch landed on a small, dead snag, and poked and prodded the wood. Bird shadows crossed above me as the sun appeared again for a few minutes, and I felt more akin to the birds around me than I do to humans caught inside by the thrall of technology. I hoped to go see a foreign film in Altoona this evening, one I’ve been looking forward to, but given the choice of a mild winter and easy access to entertainment or this chance to once again snowshoe in a snow-covered forest, I’ll take the latter any day.
Six juncos harvested weed seeds at the Far Field, one specializing in broomsedge and close enough (two feet) to photograph if I had a camera. It was missing most of its tail, but it could still fly.
Beyond the Far Field, the sky was dark. Looking out at Sinking Valley, I could see a whiteout advancing. Then it was on me, a heavy, blinding snow shower as I negotiated around numerous deep holes deer had dug in the road. The snow lasted only a short time and again the sun shone on Laurel Ridge Trail. I was home by 11:30.