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.
Another National Migratory Bird Count day and we are blessed by a perfect May morning–cool, clear, and ringing with birdsong. This time, though, I resolve to take it easy, to move slowly and quietly, to make this day a walking meditation on the beauties of this most splendid of months. Besides, I am getting older and my usual breakneck pace on foot must be modified so that I don’t collapse at midday.
Consequently, when I am awakened at 5:10 a.m. by the eastern towhee that calls outside my window, I lie there listening and am rewarded by the singing of a wood thrush and the trilling of a chipping sparrow. Lulled by the avian choristers, I fall back to sleep for another hour.
An hour later I spring awake, this time for good, and hear a field sparrow, blue jay, common yellowthroat, brown-headed cowbird, gray catbird, yellow-breasted chat, Baltimore oriole, and American robin in my yard as I dress and head downstairs to make breakfast.
First, though, I stand on the veranda and add song sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, American goldfinch and scarlet tanager to my list. But I need to count numbers as well as species and I note down two goldfinches and a pair of mourning doves.
Even though it is 40 degrees, I throw open the kitchen door to listen for birds as I prepare our cheese omelets and heat up the lemon-raisin coffeecake I made the previous day. Two loud songs, those of a great-crested flycatcher and Carolina wren, fill the air.
After breakfast, I stuff my Peterson Field Guide in one pocket and my notebook, pen, and a bottle of water in the other and I am off. Slowly, I walk around the yard looking for the white-crowned sparrow I saw here the day before, the eastern bluebirds that always come into the yard to feed on insects, and the pair of American kestrels that jousted on the electric line the evening before. There is no sign of any of them. Instead, I find a pair of American redstarts in the blooming lilac shrub beside the house, watch a pair of barn swallows swooping over First Field, track down a singing yellow warbler in the maple tree beside the driveway, and note the pair of eastern phoebes that have a nest in our garage. Off in the distance I hear the call of a common flicker.
By the time I start up Guesthouse Trail at 8:05, it is 48 degrees, and the first eastern wood pewee of the year sings “pee-a-wee.” Then another song catches my attention. Because it doesn’t sound like any song I am familiar with, I spend many minutes tracking the bird down. To my surprise, it is a blue-headed vireo singing an uncharacteristic song–a vireo that hasn’t read the books. The other two I hear during the day have.
Off in the woods the first of many ovenbirds yells “Teacher, teacher, teacher.” Worm-eating warblers buzz from their undergrowth hideaways. A black-throated green warbler sings “trees, trees, murmuring trees,” and so they are as a light breeze sways the new, tender, green leaves. Those leaves are just large enough to make spotting birds a challenge. Luckily, I can use my ears to identify the drumming of a ruffed grouse and the drumming and calling of a pileated woodpecker.
I stop to admire the first pink lady slippers blooming on the trail, and near the top of Laurel Ridge, I hit a small migration. Most are yellow-rumped warblers and red-eyed vireos, but then I am stopped in my tracks by two of my favorite warblers–a singing bay-breasted and blackburnian. Since neither nest here, I don’t recognize their songs. I stand and look and listen for as long as they perform, hoping to memorize their songs while admiring the flaming orange throat and head of the blackburnian and the bay-breasted’s more muted reddish-brown throat, upper breast and back of the head.
Since I am looking skyward, I also spot the first turkey vulture of the day gliding overhead, followed a few minutes later by a red-tailed hawk. In the distance a turkey gobbles. A few minutes later, two shots ring out. Sounds like our turkey hunters have bagged the turkey I just counted!
I continue my slow walk along Laurel Ridge Trail and stop to smell the wild azalea in bloom. Then I see a hairy woodpecker climbing an oak tree trunk and hear the sweet, robin-like warble of a rose-breasted grosbeak. A common raven calls overhead and a red-bellied woodpecker from a nearby tree. The calling and chasing of a pair of downy woodpeckers is a prelude to their mating on a tree branch. “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’ll switch you,” sings a chestnut-sided warbler.
By 9:45 I reach the end of Laurel Ridge Trail and turn on to the Far Field Road. Already, the frenzied birdsong of early morning has quieted. Now I hear only the birds in residence, which includes the first hooded warbler and one American crow. The latter are nesting now and are unusually quiet.
The flowering dogwood is in full splendor along the roadside and I sit on Coyote Bench to listen and look. Finally, I hear the “fee-bee” of a black-capped chickadee and watch a male towhee chasing a black-and-white warbler. The warbler ignores the towhee and continues feeding a few feet away from me. This handsome warbler is one of the earliest arrivals and moves woodpecker-like up and down tree trunks and branches.
A northern cardinal sings from below the road and so does the first black-throated blue warbler of the season. I move on to the Far Field and scan for the bird I hear singing. There he sits, high in a black locust tree, the first indigo bunting to return.
By 11:00 a.m., I have 51 species and my walk back home merely adds numbers to my list, including the red-bellied woodpecker yelling his head off inside our deer exclosure.
I rest by making homemade soup for lunch and then sit on the veranda and watch a pair of pileated woodpeckers on a yard tree. Just as they fly off, a ruby-throated hummingbird hovers beside the same tree. Having gotten my 52nd species, I pull on my boots again. This time I set off for Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails on the ten-year-old clearcut.
Where are the blue-gray gnatcatchers, I wonder. They have been back for weeks and yet I have not heard one. Along Greenbrier Trail I hear or see four. While I am “pishing” up the gnatcatchers, a towhee and a white-throated sparrow flush from a Japanese barberry bush. Many cardinals sing and forage. This has always been a cardinal haven, even before the trees were cut.
Still moving slowly and quietly, I hear a loud, complex song that I can’t identify. Determined to see the bird I spend more than half an hour trying to track it down. But it keeps moving around and when I glimpse it, the leaves hide its body. Desperately, I count the syllables–six–and read the account of every possible warbler song in Peterson. None seems to fit what I am hearing.
Finally, the bird lands on a naked branch and I can hardly believe it. It’s a hooded warbler. I know the American redstart and black-throated green warbler have a variety of songs and I should have guessed by the timbre of the song, if not its pattern, that it was a hooded warbler.
I move on to the Bench Blind and am rewarded with a lovely view of a singing redstart as well as a parade of dogwood trees. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are also plentiful.
Then I wend my way down to the road via Ten Springs Trail and its extension into the uncut forest. There, I stop to contemplate the many jack-in-the-pulpit leaves without flowers. Last year’s drought is probably affecting this year’s blooming jacks. The other wildflowers have gone crazy in the frequent rains. So has our stream. It roars along, drowning out all but the ringing songs of the Louisiana waterthrushes. Then their alarm calls bring in a male scarlet tanager and I look and look at this favorite bird before it flies off.
My eyes now concentrate on the wildflowers. We have been away for ten days and I am pleased that the cool weather has kept them from blooming until now. Even the purple trillium, that bloomed before we left, still hold on to their blossoms.
Beds of foamflowers and wild geraniums, yellow mandarin and white, smooth yellow, long-spurred, and purple violets cover the stream bank and road bank. A line of mitrewort blooms along the stream and on top of a mound formed by a large tulip tree that went over last fall. The mound also holds white violets, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violet leaves, marginal wood ferns, and cinnamon ferns.
Next I find five colonies of the parasitic squawroot that live on the roots of large oak trees. Once, before the clearcut, there were hundreds of them, but I am happy that at least a few of these strange-looking, cone-like, yellow brown wildflowers have survived.
The three white pom-pom-shaped blossoms of sarsaparilla are in bloom on either side of the road. Fringed polygala provides a splash of pinkish-purple on the road bank. White umbels of Canada mayflower, also called wild lily-of-the-valley, stand above its bright green and shiny heart-shaped leaves. The bed of rue anemone near the forks is still as fresh as when it first opened three weeks ago.
But what about the birds? Counting birds is only an excuse to spend the whole day abroad. This day is about appreciating the natural world, about having a reverence for life, about being grateful that I am alive and well and able to once again experience that greatest show on earth–an Appalachian spring.