May Day Musings
May 1. 47 degrees at dawn and overcast with a shower before breakfast. Three deer foraged in the flat area and did not flee when I set out the bird feeder.
Halfway along Black Gum Trail, the first ovenbirds finally sang. Our springs are later and later; England’s are earlier and earlier–three weeks earlier, according to British ecologists who spoke on NPR’s Morning Edition. And the second news item (after Bush’s repeat threat to veto time-tables to get out of Iraq in an Iraq War spending bill): scientists have announced that the Arctic is melting three times faster than their computer models predicted. It’s obvious to me which news item is the most important in the long run but not to short-sighted humans, especially politicians. People will go on killing each other over minor issues and, in fact, wars large and small will increase as resources dwindle. On Marketplace they reported that folks in England are so upset over the scarcity of wood, due to unprecedented demand from China, that fist fights have broken out at garden centers over the few fencing materials available.
Yet I sit in our well-watered forest, listening to the birds and chipmunks as a glimmer of sun breaks through the clouds, and feel the utter peace and contentment of my charmed life. To get here, I’ve donned mostly old clothes except for my new boots, made of extra-soft kangaroo leather to pamper my arthritic feet, and assembled in China by an American-owned company. My socks, however, which are also extra thick and soft, were made in Iowa of merino wool by a small company called Fox River. I’ve burned no fossil fuel to get here. Still, my life, like everyone else’s, is built on compromises–fossil fuel to heat our home and run our machines, buying local food as much as possible to keep large refrigerator trucks off the road and support our local economy, buying a more gas efficient car but still driving, air-drying clothes as much as possible but using an electric clothes washer, etc.
The Waterthrush Bench Louisiana waterthrush is definitely back and sings loudly over and over as I past by.
A single rue anemone flowers in the dark place where the hepaticas grow and where a few still bloom.
The first tiger swallowtail of the year comes floating off Sapsucker Ridge toward me.
Return of the Last Neotropical Migrants
May 2. The Baltimore oriole greeted me at 6:30 this morning. Then Dave came in and had me listen to a strange song outside. It was a blue-winged warbler, but try as I might I could not see the elusive singer, unlike the oriole who didn’t mind being seen at all. Still, the blue-winged warbler’s “song” is unmistakeable.
At 7:00 I stepped outside to listen again. This time it was a brown thrasher singing from the top of a yard tree. He wasn’t difficult to see either. Dave says one has been back since early April, but that was the first I’ve heard or seen one. But then I’m not out on my back porch drinking coffee at the crack of dawn every day as Dave is.
As I pulled on my boots at 8:45–zoom–past me. It could only be a ruby-throated hummingbird, and indeed it was. He perched briefly on a sapling and then flew over to sup on the Virginia bluebells as if he remembered them from other years. What a hummingbird magnet those flowers are. And luckily the deer don’t like them.
Descending the hill on Laurel Ridge Trail, I heard a singing hooded warbler who hushed, along with the ovenbirds, when a sharpie flew overhead and then slowly circled above.
Coming toward the spruce grove, I heard a singing scarlet tanager on Sapsucker Ridge. Dave had heard a “chit-bang” yesterday but no song.
As I sat on Alan’s Bench, sharpies, hidden in the dense spruces, made their usual polite protests on both sides of me.
As the sun shone more brightly, a wood thrush sang below in the woods.
At the edge of the Far Field, golden black birch catkins shimmered in the sunlight as I listened to a chorus of birds–white-throated sparrows, field sparrows, black-and-white and black-throated green warblers. A sapsucker tended his wells. I saw at least one yellow-rumped warbler and heard a singing ruby-crowned kinglet. A black-throated green warbler groomed himself on a cherry tree branch and then sang. I also heard the buzz of a worm-eating warbler and the melodious wood thrush. A small flock of white-throats foraged among the ice-toppled trees. Common yellowthroats sang and a pair of flickers called. Least flycatchers also sang and I saw my first American redstart finally. I heard and then saw, high in a tree, a singing rose-breasted grosbeak. If only the warblers were as easy to see as the grosbreaks!
As I crossed the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I encountered a huge, fresh bear scat, which is evidence that at least one bear roams the mountain. But I haven’t seen one in such a long time and this is the year our mother bears, if they are still alive, should be having cubs.
Later, while I finished the dinner dishes, Bruce sat out on the veranda reading, but he looked up in time to see a great blue heron perched in the black walnut tree. Then it flew off toward the Little Juniata River.
May 3. As we walked out to the car at 8:15 to drive to State College, we were serenaded by a newly arrived catbird singing in the ailing blac walnut tree overlooking the forsythia where the catbirds nest every year.
Back home shortly after 3:00 and I was out before 4:00, heading for the deer exclosure. Mayapples are still only singles, which means still no blossoms after seven years. How long does it take for a colony to bloom? On the other hand, Solomon’s seals are huge and dangle blossoms beneath their leaves as still more germinate every year. Large beds of purple violets bloomed also.
Blue-gray gnatcatcher, towhees, blue-headed vreos, and black-throated green warblers sang and called, and chipmunks and gray squirrels scampered about their businesses.
I moved on up to my favorite white oak tree, accompanied by the scolding of a wood thrush. But when I sat down, he serenaded me for many holy minutes, even while a robin briefly tried to compete. He interrupted his singing to poke about in the ground detritus, but then he turned toward me and more music flowed from his beak, as if he were directing his songs at me. He was brightly spotted on his white breast, a truly handsome bird. I’ve never seen one singing on the forest floor as he moves about. It was almost as if he was performing a concert just for me.
May 7. My back went out on the morning of May 4, and I’ve been housebound ever since. The days have been cool, clear, and beautiful as the trees slowly leaf out. Wood thrushes sing at dawn and dusk, the flickers have definitely taken over the black walnut tree nest hole, and white-throated sparrows still remain and sing this incredibly late spring. I have so little time left to enjoy it and I feel depressed that of all months–May, my favorite one–my back gives out on me. Still, I sit outside on the white plastic chair in the sunlight as much as I can.
Virginia bluebells have spread and are at their height as they spill down the slope. What an inheritance from Dad, especially since none of the herbivores seem to like them. I say “herbivores” because I just watched a woodchuck, on its hind haunches, pulling down and eating black raspberry leaves from canes below the back steps. And to think I’ve been blaming it on deer.
I took a slow, early afternoon walk, drawn on by a singing scarlet tanager. I never did see the tanager, but I had a good view of a foraging yellow-rump high in an oak tree. It is still the delicate season, but the leaves are expanding fast. The oaks dangle rose and gold flowers while tiny, perfect leaves sprout from above.
May 8. I was out by 8:30 a.m., still sore and stiff and moving slowly, but able to walk. I heard yellow-billed cuckoos, great-crested flycatchers, and scarlet tanagers when I walked up First Field Trail. A red-tailed hawk, its breast shining white, sat on the Sapsucker Ridge side of First Field, but it flew off as I approached.
Inside the exclosure, two pink lady slipper plants had germinated, but only one had a flower stem. Tent caterpillars have erupted as the cherry leaves have unfurled. I watched a Baltimore oriole poke into a couple as I crossed the powerline right-of-way.
Two wood thrushes foraged on First Field Trail. An ovenbird sang behind me as I sat on Turtle Bench. Black flies buzzed around my face.
By the time I made it up to Alan’s Bench at 9:30, it was warm and the view hazy. In the few days I’ve been down, several shades of green, from gold to emerald, have softened the mountains as the trees have leafed out. In the distance, a hooded warbler sang and close by a chipping sparrow buzzed and trilled. Once again the wood frogs have lost out. The largest vernal pond is almost gone.
One of the dozens of perfoliate bellworts along Sapsucker Ridge Trail bloomed. Finally, I saw a “chit-banging” scarlet tanager at the edge of the Far Field. I also saw and heard a snorting buck. Tiger swallowtails flapped past as I sat on a log at the edge of the field.
The small deer exclosure was jam-filled with Canada mayflowers. Clumps of Solomon’s seal waved above them. Striped and red maple, hickory and cherry saplings had leafed out. Blackberry vines grew in one corner and wherever they stuck out of the fence they had been nipped off. A deer track runs right beside and around the fence so not much grows outside of it in this flat area of the mountain.
Celandine bloomed on the Far Field Road bank. Early saxifrage still blossomed. Wild azalea was out along Laurel Ridge Trail and I stopped to breathe in its sweet aroma. A bumblebee worked over every opened blossom.
May 9. I walked down the road to look for wildflowers and birds. Two returns soon greeted me–Acadian flycatcher and red-eyed vireo. All the wildflowers were up, including Indian cucumber-root by the dozens. Gaywings and wild geranium bloomed full tilt. A haze of green on every tree and shrub, the sun shining through and setting the forest alight as it wakes the trees from their long fall, winter, and early spring sleep and brings back the singing birds from their sojourns in the tropics.
Eight Jack-in-the-pulpits bloomed on the side of the charcoal hearth. I heard worm-eating warblers, which have been back for several days, many Acadian flycatchers, black-throated green and black-and-white warblers, wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and Louisiana waterthrushes as I proceeded down the road. I found clintonia leaves out in several places but few flower stalks. Red elderberry shrubs flowered. Kidney-leaf buttercups and foamflower were out, along with smooth yellow, sweet white, and long-spurred violets and bumblebees foraged on foamflowers and smooth, yellow violets.
As I sat on Waterthrush Bench, I heard a northern parula singing high up on Laurel Ridge.
I caught a ride back up with Bruce, because I am not yet fully recovered, and as we walked down the driveway from the car, Bruce talking and me listening to what sounded neither like a brown thrasher or gray catbird imitating birdsongs, a northern mockingbird flew off, flashing his semaphore-like white and gray wings. That’s only about the third time we’ve ever seen a mockingbird up here even though they are common in the valley yards.
May 10. Clearing but humid weather that the birds love. On Greenbrier Trail, practially every bird species possible sang and called, but I had very few glimpses because the underbrush and trees have leafed out thickly. So once again it’s ear-birding.
While trying to track a new song, a Swainson’s thrush flew silently up from the underbrush and allowed me a good, long look, front and back. It had very few light spots on its upper breast, which made it a first-year bird, according to Sibley.
Dogwoods bloomed and I found a ninth jack-in-the-pulpit on top of the charcoal hearth. The bishop’s cap has spread along the stream bank along Pit Mound Trail.
May 11. I had a beautiful view of a singing worm-eating warbler high in a tree along Laurel Ridge Trail, his head thrown back, his beak open, his small body vibrating. Next, I heard the first eastern wood pewee of the season. And then a blackburnian warbler.
Mother’s Day flowers
May 13. Thirty-nine degrees at dawn and clear. A perfect Mother’s Day.
The first dame’s rocket bloomed in Margaret’s yard. The birds still sang, though not as many as yesterday, as I walked through the now-green tunnel of Ten Springs Trail. Even the oaks were fully out in most places, and birds sang as disembodied voices.
Coming down Ten Springs Extension, I found wild geranium in full bloom, a fading perfoliate bellwort, a couple jack-in-the-pulpits, and the long-spurred violets still out. So too were the purple trilliums and foamflowers. My Mother’s Day flowers were in the hollow, freely given by nature to all who would look. New clintonia plants had emerged just above the big pull-off. That flower too is spreading, although this year its leaves are many, its blossoms few. Sarsaparillas displayed their greenish-white balls of blossoms and the bells of Solomon’s seal dangled beneath their green leaves. Wood betony flowered along Margaret’s access road and slope, although again there were more leaves than gold-tipped brown flowers.
May 14. The lilacs are spectacular and perfume our way around the yard, as well as acting as attractants to butterflies and hummingbirds. Large beds of deep blue ajuga grow amidst the tall, green lawn.
I counted lady slippers and found 45 and only one had possibly been nipped. I also had a good view of a singing blackburnian warbler and another of a hooded warbler and heard a couple black-throated blues. And I saw the male sharpie as soon as I circled around the bottom edge of the spruce grove. Where was he on the IMBD?
Mayapples bloomed at the Far Field thicket. At least sixteen celandine plants bloomed on the Far Field Trail roadbank.
May 15. “Che-bec, che-bec,” a least flycatcher called in the yard. The pair of Baltimore orioles looked over a nest-building site, while the flickers peered out of their nest hole in the walnut tree.
Along Greenbrier Trail, the redstarts were in full throat, probably because the females had returned. Two male scarlet tanagers tussled briefly, and then I spotted a female nearby. Best of all, I saw and heard a hyped-up cerulean warbler.
Later, I looked up in time to see a chimney swift flying overhead. That makes three resident migrant birds–least flycatcher, cerulean warbler, and chimney swift–that I didn’t get on the IMBD!
Walking up along the stream from Pit Mound Trail, I found many Indian cucumber-roots, Solomon’s plume, and even a few maple-leaved viburnums. Acadian flycatchers and red-eyed vireos sang along the stream. Canada mayflower and Solomon’s plume bloomed. I also found at least one young red elderberry shrub, a small sign that the native shrub layer may be expanding.
Even though I was only a few yards from the road, it was as if I were in a different world, an earlier, greener world of sparkling water and singing birds, an Eden that probably did exist before humans discovered it.
The usual patch of early ragwort bloomed along the road above the forks. Even though I have seen great patches of this flower in other places, it seems to remain only in a small patch in one place here.
I checked the tiny pond for any sign of wood frog tadpoles and all I saw, as I approached, was one spring peeper that leaped into the algae-covered water. I spent a while trying to clear off at least some of the algae with my walking stick and flinging it on the bank in an effort to see the water. Still, I found little sign of any life, including the usual water striders. Very disappointing. I think the algae has formed because there is no longer a trickle of water that keeps flowing into and out of it that kept it pure.
A hot wind blew by mid-afternoon as the thermometer registered 90 degrees and we hovered indoors behind closed windows that had trapped the evening cool from last night.
Saturday, May 12: International Migratory Bird Day. I spring awake at 6:00 a.m., pull out my earplugs, and start counting birds–eastern phoebe, black-capped chickadee, Baltimore oriole, tufted titmouse–as I dress, my windows wide open to a medley of birdsongs and calls this humid, warm morning.
Out to the yard I rush and try to separate out the songs: eastern towhee; common yellowthroat; the pair of northern flickers nesting in the black walnut tree beside the driveway; a male brown-headed cowbird; a big-mouth blue jay; a pair of gray catbirds in the lilac bush; a scarlet tanager and a wood thrush in the nearby forest; chipping, song, and field sparrows; a red-bellied woodpecker who nests in a black locust tree in the yard; a white-breasted nuthatch; northern cardinal; blue-gray gnatcatcher; great-crested flycatcher; mourning dove; black-throated green warbler; and five American goldfinches. Twenty-four species before breakfast. But I have to count numbers as well as species, and that makes it much harder.Our son Dave joins us for a breakfast of coffee cake that I baked the day before and cheese/mushroom omelets. He also adds American robin to my yard list. Maybe it won’t be such a bad count even though I’m doing it on my own, because my two birding sons are respectively in Venezuela at an ornithology conference (Mark) and in North Carolina getting the beetles he collected on our mountain last summer properly identified (Steve). Because of their absence, I decide to cover ground quickly and not sweat the small stuff.
By 7:00 a.m. I am heading across our First Field, intent on reaching Margaret’s Woods. But what is that I hear at the top of the field? Bee, bzz, bzz, bzz. It can only be a golden-winged warbler singing where one usually sings if it graces us with its increasingly scarce presence. Then I scan the sky as son Steve always reminds me to do just in time to see a great blue heron fly overhead. Both golden-winged warbler and great blue heron are unexpected sightings for our wooded mountaintop and seem like good omens.
Beginner’s luck, I soon find out, as I work hard for most of the expected species along Greenbrier Trail–American redstart, hooded warbler, four ruffed grouse, black-and-white warbler, yellow-billed cuckoo, and rose-breasted grosbeak, among others. And I have to keep counting the ubiquitous red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, and eastern towhees. Except for a rose-breasted grosbeak and one of several American redstarts, I am ear-birding because most of the trees have leafed out.
As I descend Dogwood Knoll, I can hear a Louisiana waterthrush singing down by the stream. Steaming back up the road, I encounter four common grackles. I also hear a couple Acadian flycatchers, and a ton of red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, eastern towhees, and black-throated green warblers.
Those same species keep adding up as I head along First Field Trail, and ovenbirds also increase their numbers. I spend altogether too much time trying to arouse the pair of sharp-shinned hawks nesting in the spruce grove. No matter where I look or stand or sit I can’t pry them from their hidden nest. But as I climb to the top of First Field, I see the first indigo buntings singing from the top of the still leafless black locust trees.
Along Laurel Ridge Trail I am mostly counting singing tanagers, ovenbirds, worm-eating warblers, black-and-white warblers, red-eyed vireos, and hooded warblers. But I also hear and then see a singing blackburnian warbler, watch a pair of blue jays building a nest, finally hear a couple blue-winged warblers, get a quick glimpse of a bay-breasted warbler, and while resting am practically knocked over by four yellow-billed cuckoos flying fast, low, and close as they chase past.
I wend my weary way homeward by 1:00 p.m. along Black Gum Trail and make soup and sandwiches for the three of us. Dave adds ruby-throated hummingbird to our yard list.
“I saw it from my desk as it foraged on the coral bells,” he says. “That’s the kind of birding I like to do.” He’s not one of my birding sons, but at least he keeps his eyes open.
Then, as the sky blackens for expected thunderstorms, I rest for a couple hours. I am, after all, recovering from a back attack; have walked three and a half rugged, up-and-down miles; and have entered fairly recently the young-old category.
By midafternoon, the thunderstorms have moved on and the air has cleared. I walk up to the deer exclosure and hear a wood thrush or two. I continue on to the Far Field, in search of the locals, such as downy and hairy woodpeckers and red-tailed hawk. I hear a downy but never a hairy and later, as I emerge again at the top of First Field, I finally spot a red-tail circling high in the sky just as an American crow flies past chasing a common raven. And, of course, I try again for those darn sharpies, but it’s a “no sharpie” day.
Fifty-one species so far and the day is waning. My turkey hunter friends oblige by reporting seven wild turkeys, two whip-poor-wills, a killdeer, and four blue-headed vireos for the mountain. Yeah! A nice, solid 55 species.
I step outside to join Bruce on the veranda near dusk and a duck flies up from the field. It’s a mallard in a photo finish, so to speak. And the winner, in species’ numbers, is red-eyed vireo at 20, closely followed by 17 scarlet tanagers, 15 eastern towhees, a 13 tie between ovenbirds and black-throated green warblers, and 11 wood thrushes. Fifty-six species, 229 birds, 4 1/2 miles on foot–who says I’m getting too old for this?