March 20. Because a snowstorm developed the day before we were to leave for the Pittsburgh airport and flight to Memphis, Bruce hurried us out a day early, on March 7, and we barely made it down our road, chains on all four tires, through six new inches of snow. But at least I was able to admire the flock of red-winged blackbirds at the feeder area before we left. Then, the snow almost all melted while were were gone, and Steve and Dave sent us “spring is here” e-mails as early arrivals such as robins, woodcocks, and phoebes appeared. Meanwhile, we were enjoying warm spring weather in Mississippi and Arizona.
Then, a new e-mail message from the boys–more cold and eight new inches of wet snow on March 16 and 17 (always we must beware the Ides of March!) two days before we were to arrive home. We hit driving rain in Pittsburgh that changed to sleet and snow by the time we crested Laurel Mountain and that continued the rest of the way home.
The snow had settled a bit, but still it was a struggle to drive up the road without chains on the tires through the wet snow, and when Bruce tried to back on to the lawn, first the car skidded and then it stuck fast. We felt as if nothing much had changed during our almost two weeks away.
I counted five fox sparrows and six cardinals at the feeding area late yesterday afternoon, and this morning at least five song sparrows.
A beautiful day today and spring officially begins this evening at 8:07. Robins called as I stepped outside at 10:00 a.m. for a walk to the Far Field through about four inches of standing snow. The sun was warm and it was windy–March as we know it in central Pennsylvania.
Goodbye to redbuds, trillium, and cut-leaved toothwort in Memphis and ninety degrees and dry in desert Arizona, seventy degrees and breezy in the mountains. Breathing is harder for me here, and I woke up choking form congestion in my lungs as they readjust to humid, polluted eastern air.
Still, I was able to walk quite easily uphill here despite too much sitting in airplanes, airports and cars. I guess the hikes we took on Mt. Lemmon, in Madera and Oak Creek canyons, and at several desert national monuments kept me in shape. At least I don’t seem to have lost any ground. I love the desert, but the green and abundantly watered eastern United States would be difficult to leave forever. if only it weren’t so polluted and paved over. Those wide-open spaces in nothern Arizona are tempting at 8,000 feet above sea level around Flagstaff, the only place I would ever consider living in the state. They have four seasons, and patches of snow still sat in the shaded areas. But even now we see more mammals and birds here than we saw there, except for the hummingbirds at feeders in Madera Canyon. Eva kept hoping to see mammals, but stare as we might at the passing landscape, we could only add rock squirrels at the Grand Canyon. Canyon wrens and Gila woodpeckers were almost everywhere, but that was about it. Even raptors were absent, although they were due in migration soon.
It was wonderful to spend a holiday with my granddaughter Eva, who displayed all the joy of a youngster in a new place. Visiting with my writing friend Ken Lamberton and his wife Karen for several days also added to our pleasure, since both are lifelong residents of Tucson.
But back here, sitting on Coyote Bench, I heard white-breasted nuthatches “yanking,” chickadees “fee-beeing,” and pileateds, hairies, and red-bellieds calling.
Rite of Spring
March 21. Twenty-two degrees at dawn and clear. On this first full day of spring, I was awakened by the sad song of the mourning dove outside my window. Cardinals, song sparrows, and juncoes added to the dawn chorus.
Robins sang lustily in Margaret’s Woods, and I stopped to sit, amidst the frozen, patchy snow, to listen to a singing tree sparrow along Greenbrier Trail. And then, close by and loud–”toe-hee.” Could it be the same male from beyond the Second Thicket? Surely he is not an early returnee. Was he, in effect, the same towhee that was here for Christmas Bird Count 2005? As the towhee flies, it’s less than two miles from here to the Second Thicket. If so, he has run out of food and is searching farther afield. What a surprise!
A downy drummed in the distance, quite unlike the thunderous drumbeat of a pileated earlier in Margaret’s Woods. A brown-headed cowbird also sang. And the towhee continued to “toe-hee” all around me, though I never caught a glimpse of him. Cardinals also sang, so despite the cold and snow, spring is truly here.
After lunch, I stood outside and heard the first eastern phoebe “songs” of the season, having missed last week’s return.
March 22. Thirty-two degrees at dawn, warming up to 62 by noon. Steve and Elanor came up this morning, and while Elanor threw stones from the driveway into the ditch flowing with water, a woodcock suddenly flew up from where it must have been hunkered down in the dried grasses across the driveway, startling all of us. Off it flew, over the guesthouse towards the woods, giving us a lovely view of its cocked bill and reddish-brown body.
Bruce and Elanor also found five garter snakes out around the old, silted-in well, a couple of which balled up briefly. Meanwhile, Steve and I had walked up a nearly snow-free First Field to Alan’s Bench, which was still deep in wet snow. Steve spotted a ground beetle walking over the snow–another surprise. “I didn’t know they’d be out this early and walking on the snow,” he said.
March 24. The many hard, warm rains we’ve had over the last couple days have turned the mountain brown and beige and the moss bright green, leaving only a couple patches of icy snow in the shade of the spruce grove. Water flowed through ditches and drainpipes and the vernal ponds on Sapsucker Ridge were full and clear, reflecting the trees in wavering light as a breeze ruffled the water.
Mountain laurel along Guesthouse and Laurel Ridge trails looked sad, sick, and dying, for the most part. Only a few tall, medium-sized and small ones looked good and had new buds. It’s hard to believe that a leaf fungus is the only cause of what appears to be a great die-off of our state wildflower.
March 26. Today the yard filled and swelled with birdsong–dozens of trilling juncos, singing cardinals, bluebirds, a cowbird or two, song sparrows, phoebes, and the first field sparrow! But Greenbrier Trail was unusually quiet, although I watched a turkey vulture fly above the hollow and heard and saw a couple golden-crowned kinglets.
Ten Springs Trail was similarly quiet except for a winter wren who seemed to be practicing a half-finished song. On Ten Springs Extension I encountered a dozen or so golden-crowned kinglets, but as I sat beside the stream, the roar of water made it difficult to hear even the loudest birds. Still, more kinglets called and foraged overhead. They were definitely on the move north. Surrounded by those gossamer little creatures, wherever I looked I saw them, especially in the hemlocks. I hoped they were feasting on woolly adelgids.
I also saw at least five winter wrens, which are as close to water sprites as we have in the hollow. Brown creepers foraged on trees across from the corral below the guesthouse. Then I heard a strange, buzzing sound that I finally identified as a pair of scolding winter wrens, incensed by the feral cat hiding in the shrubbery. When I chased off the cat, I was rewarded with a song! After chasing after a singing wren deep in the hollow, I heard its song instead on my home grounds, along with song sparrows. What a musical combination.
I also watched a red-bellied drumming on a dead locust limb in our yard. Below it is a woodpecker hole. I wonder if that is where it nests every year. Flickers also called.
A Compton’s tortoiseshell flew erratically over the lawn as I took off my boots.
March 27. Sixty-one degrees at dawn and clear. An opossum fed below the back steps on birdseed between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. On this Feederwatch day, I recorded the first chipping sparrow of the season. Flickers called, along with red-bellieds, and phoebes, bluebirds, cardinals, titmice, and juncos were in full throat this unseasonably warm day in late March. But is it unseasonable or another sign of global warming? Too bad we can’t simply sit back, relax, and enjoy this early gift of spring.
I went down to check the wood frog pond and one frog dove under the duckweed. Coltsfoot lit my way with their golden disks.
There was silence along Guesthouse and Laurel Ridge trails, but when I entered the spruce grove I heard a whickering, protesting call from a sharpie. I couldn’t spot the bird, but I assume last year’s pair is setting up housekeeping again in the hidden depths of the grove.
Inspired by the day, I came home and played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I do every spring. No work excites me more than this one and if I could go back in time, I would want to be in Paris when this piece was first played to a mostly disapproving audience.
Red-bellieds drummed and called as I sat out on the veranda in the afternoon. Flickers tried to claim the black walnut tree nesthole, but it was fiercely guarded by the resident gray squirrel. Bluebirds and cardinals sang. A red-tail sailed over the field and turkey vultures frequently rocked past. A brown creeper silently inspected the bark of a black walnut tree and as it sprialed upward, it looked like a piece of moving bark. Juncos trilled unceasingly. A downy called as it too ascended a walnut tree.
“Naturalist’s Eye” column for Pennsylvania Game News, March, 2007
I’ve closed our gate behind me after crossing the Little Juniata River and the main railroad line from New York to Chicago. Almost immediately I step into a different, older world this breezy, blue-skied day in late March.
For weeks spring has played with us, blowing first warm and then cold, but today spring has truly arrived. Everything shines in our north-facing hollow–the leaf duff, the stream, the hemlock needles, the tree trunks, the few dried, beige leaves still clinging to the American beech trees, the moss, the Christmas and evergreen woodferns, the rhododendron leaves. Still, gray and black, brown, beige, and green are the predominant colors of our hollow before spring bursts out with flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflowers of every imaginable color, giving solace to my color-starved eyes.
I start up the first steep stretch of our mile-and-a-half access road where rocks have slid into the road. I pick one up and notice how
It gathers light, [...]
a mountain in miniature, notches and ridges
carved by weather, strata and stria,
the pressure of time,
as Barbara Crooker writes in her poem “Geology.”
That time is almost beyond belief. The dark red rock outcropping on the right side of our road, which has spewed out the rocks, is part of the Juniata Formation. Although it is the “newest” formation in the Ordovician System, it dates from 360 million years ago. Because the Juniata Formation is composed of a softer sandstone than either Sapsucker Ridge on the right or Laurel Ridge on the left, our small stream was able to develop and form our hollow.
Laurel Ridge is made up of rock even older than the Juniata Formation, called the Bald Eagle Formation, which is also a sandstone in the Ordovician System. Sapsucker Ridge is younger rock–Tuscarora quartzite in the Silurian System.
Unfortunately, the Juniata sandstone soil is unstable. In the 1970s, geologists from Penn State studied and mapped numerous fracture traces and lineaments in the hollow. These fracture traces and lineaments are faults in the underlying rock structures that conduct water and cause slope instability, rapid runoff, and earth slide conditions. Most springs we have a few small slides into the road, but so far there have been none this year. Still, it is easy to see the patch of muddy bank where nothing much grows because of the frequent slides.
At this time of year, when the vegetation is not as dense, several large, rectangular stone blocks, in a circular area 20 feet across, are visible on the far side of the stream. Those blocks are all that is left of a cistern that was built in 1850 by the Pennsylvania Railroad to supply water for the steam locomotives using the new railroad line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The rest was washed away in the great flood of 1936.
As I near the top of the steep stretch and round the bend, I fully enter into the life of the hollow, leaving all sight and sound of civilization behind me. The first rhododendron appears down by the stream, and the first white pines and hemlocks grow on either side of the road, casting dappled shade in the mostly deciduous forest.
White pine cones cover the road wherever a white pine grows, and large clusters of cones still dangle from its topmost branches like Christmas decorations that hang too long on doorways. American basswood, tulip poplar, and cucumber magnolia trees stand straight and tall along the road and beside the stream. While tulip tree seeds, beige-colored and shaped like tulip flowers, still cling to their branches, providing black-capped chickadee and tufted titmouse food throughout the winter. The remnants of cucumber magnolia and basswood seeds have long been crushed into the road and dropped into the leaf duff.
Fallen trees, downed by hurricane, wind, and old age lie rugged in thick, green moss on the mountain slopes. Flat, wild hydrangea seed heads hang from dried branches on the steep road bank where they are safe from deer browsing. So too are clusters of rhododendron sprouts that form a deep green skirt around a moss-covered log.
A few invasives have made it up the road–Norway maples near the bottom, a Japanese barberry here, a privet there. And, of course, garlic mustard is already rearing its ugly head. But the hollow mostly supports native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.
The stream, filled with winter runoff, tumbles over and around elevated rocks. One rock, shaped like a surf board, creates a miniature waterfall. I stop to sit beside the stream, my back against my favorite basswood tree, and listen to the music of the water. Across the stream, a recently uprooted hemlock tree sprawls over two oak trees it brought down with it when it fell.
A chipmunk dashes across the road. Then another. They first emerged in February to mate, and now they are out for good.
An elegant, cream-bordered, dark brown mourning cloak glides above the stream, and three reddish-brown, black-and-orange Compton tortoiseshells flutter over the road. Both butterflies are harbingers of spring. They overwinter as adults and share the genus Nymphalia with Milbert’s tortoiseshell. Mourning cloaks, known as Camberwell beauties in England, live throughout North America and west through Eurasia in almost any habitat. Compton tortoiseshells, named after Compton County in Quebec, prefer the woods and are not as cosmopolitan as their cousins, ranging across the northern United States and southern Canada.
In what our late neighbor, Margaret, called “the dark place,” thick with hemlocks, a moss-covered nurse log nurtures two hemlock seedlings. Large beeches share this section of the forest with the hemlocks. I peer down the steep bank and watch the stream shoot over rock ledges wedged between the bank and the mountainside, while a winter wren, which has spent the winter here, calls and bounces like a child’s windup toy. This is the wildest part of the hollow with the most old-growth characteristics.
Beyond the dark place, only a scattering of hemlocks and a few white pines loom amid the deciduous trees, including a steady lineup of mature beeches. If you know where to look, a few small ironwood or hornbeams grow along the road. Other deciduous trees include white ash, sugar and red maples, black cherry, chestnut, red, scarlet and white oaks.
A large white oak tree looms on a bluff above the road. This most unnatural flat area was leveled off in 1813 to form a charcoal hearth, one of dozens of such places in the hollow and on surrounding ridges where colliers, employed by the local iron company, piled up log billets into dome-shaped mounds, covered them with earth, and slowly burned them down into charcoal. Then they hauled the charcoal to an iron-making community at the bottom of our mountain, where they used it for forge fires. The iron industry based here and in other nearby communities clearcut the mountain in 1813 and again in the 1840s to supply charcoal for the forges. Even today the charcoal is evident when I stick my finger into the soil. This particular hearth nurtures several spring wildflowers such as round-leaved violets, round-lobed hepaticas and jack-in-the-pulpits.
At the base of the hearth, one of several side streams that flow off Sapsucker Ridge, this one along what we call Pit Mound Trail, disappears under a road grate and joins the main stream. The trail is named for the many large, uprooted trees whose roots pull up mounds of earth and leave a pit below. Locally, folks refer to them as “Indian graves,” but instead of places for the dead, these pit mounds create conditions for new life. By mixing zones of subsoil with topsoil, they produce rich micro-habitats where patches of rich, herbaceous understory plants thrive on the forest floor.
Above Pit Mound Trail on the Laurel Ridge side, the first mountain laurel appears. More upland hardwoods, especially the oaks, abound. One large snag, hoary with age and lichens, contains five old pileated woodpecker holes. Up Sapsucker Ridge to the right is a large sugar maple. Young black birch trees grow out of the road bank, and I break off a fresh branch to smell the “chewing gum tree,” as our granddaughter Eva calls it. That same wintergreen flavor also permeates the evergreen teaberry leaves and bright red berries growing on top of the road bank.
Still another exercise in spicy aroma are the many spicebushes growing in the understory on the flattened, floodplain-like area beside the stream. Again, scoring a fresh twig with my fingernail releases the allspice smell of this attractive shrub. Because the hollow is not so steep during its last half mile, it receives more sunshine and is warmer, which encourages the difference in forest composition. Clubmosses green the road bank, along with patches of partridgeberry, still sporting twin red berries.
The stream has shrunk and quieted as I reach the forks. I am close to its origins now. Another side stream leads past the abandoned home of our deceased neighbor, Margaret, and the parking lot my husband Bruce built for our hunters, and it seeps from the hillside across from the lot.
But I continue up the left fork in our road along the stream. A brown creeper calls and forages above the forks. The last quarter of a mile the road bank on my left harbors several patches of trailing arbutus, the shining, evergreen leaves a promise of the pink-and-white, sweetly-scented flowers to come. A cluster of large white pines again paves the road with crushed pine cones. Along the now trickle of a stream, the only grove of big-leaf aspens grow. Half uprooted across our old corral fence over the stream, a willow displays its gleaming, gray pussies. In the middle of the driveway, the first coltsfoots have turned their butter-yellow disks to the warm sunshine.
I pick my way across the stream and push through the cattails of our small wetland. From there, I follow the thin stream of water up First Field where it gushes out of the ground, gurgling its welcome to spring.
Photos: eastern chipmunk; mourning cloak butterfly. Both taken in Plummer’s Hollow in March, 2006 by Dave Bonta.