Under the Spruce Grove

Twenty-five years ago my husband Bruce and I planted 2000 Norway spruce seedlings at the top of First Field and 2000 red pine seedlings at the Far Field. The seedlings were courtesy of the Westvaco paper mill in Tyrone. The tree planter, which we hitched to our secondhand, Massey-Ferguson tractor, had been borrowed from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. We hauled it here in a friend’s pickup truck.

For the first and last time in my life, I drove that tractor while Bruce sat behind on the tree planter, deftly dropping seedlings into the furrow the tree planter opened and then quickly closed. We thought we were planting a picnic grove for our old age at the top of First Field and making good use of the overgrown Far Field.

The following year all 2000 red pine seedlings were gone–consumed by hungry white-tailed deer. But the deer were not as fond of Norway spruce, and many of them survived. Just as they reached Christmas tree size, the gypsy moth caterpillars arrived. In the spring and early summer of 1981, the six-year-old saplings lost all their needles to the caterpillars. Our experiment in reforestation seemed to be over.

Then, most of the spruces turned green again, proving that even conifer trees, or at least Norway spruces, can grow new needles after a bout with the caterpillars. Luckily, we had only one bad infestation. After that, the survivors headed for the sky. Except for cutting one Christmas tree every year, we didn’t thin the trees. We figured the caterpillars had done the thinning for us.

At first we were proud of our efforts. Then we learned that planting non-natives, like Norway spruces, was not what we should have done. We should have planted hemlocks or white pines. But we had been poor and those seedlings had been free.

Even though they had been planted in tree-farm rows, the caterpillar-thinning had made the soldier-straight lines into more pleasing groves. Still, because they were non-natives, I wonder what they would attract. Native birds by the score, I discovered, but as the trees grew taller and thicker, it was difficult to see the birds. I did, however, hear them–mourning doves and crows, eastern towhees and field sparrows, cedar waxwings and blue jays, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos, to name just a few. Occasionally, I even saw some of those birds and others such as white-crowned sparrows and golden-crowned kinglets.

As the years passed and the trees grew taller and thicker, ruffed grouse used them as shelter in the winter. So did the juncos. If I sat quietly in the grove near sunset on winter evenings, they zipped in over my head so closely that I felt the wind from their wings. When they saw me, they chirped from their sheltered perches deep within the spruce boughs, but they eventually settled down for the night.

The first mammals that I noticed making persistent use of the grove were porcupines. They started thinning the edge trees in the early nineties by gnawing their bark and eating their needles during the winter. Most of the work was done at night and when snow covered the ground, their furrowed tracks entered the grove from all directions. Occasionally I tracked them to their dens in hollow trees. Sometimes, when the weather was especially cold and snowy, I would find a porcupine in a spruce tree in the middle of the day.

Snow revealed the presence of foxes and turkeys and even the wing marks of owls. But it was harder to find out what animals used the grove at other times of the year. Then, on the last day of August, 1999, feeling exhausted and fighting a mild infection, I walked slowly to the spruce grove, carrying an inflatable pillow one of our hunter friends had given me. I stretched out under a thick bower of spruce branches and almost slept while birds sang and scolded so close that I heard their wings flapping.

Finally, I opened my eyes and tried to identify the shadowy birds in the branches. I heard chickadees, titmice, mourning doves, cedar waxwings and an incessant blue jay screaming a warning, but a pair of cardinals and an ovenbird landed on a nearby branch and looked me over, all the while the lookout blue jay grew more insistent in its protest.

Suddenly, I saw a movement over my right shoulder. Using the spruce as cover, a medium-sized black bear ambled past about 30 feet away. From my supine position, I felt vulnerable, but the bear never saw me. I watched it until it exited the grove. Apparently, the blue jay had been tracking its movements across First Field and not protesting my presence, because once the bear disappeared, the blue jay was silent.

After that, I spent more time in the spruce grove, but I saw only the expected songbirds until winter. Then, once again, the porcupines invaded. I noticed, though, as winter advanced, that not as many juncos roosted there. Often, I sought refuge from rain and snow and neither heard nor saw any birds. Perhaps they knew, as I soon did, that feathered predators were using the grove.

On January 4, 2000 I went for a walk at 4:30 p.m. and poked among the groves of spruces, looking for roosting birds. Mostly it was silent, but I did spook a few juncos. Then a barred owl erupted from the top of a spruce. No wonder it had been quiet. Although barred owls mostly eat mice and other small mammals, they also take birds as large as crows if they have the chance.

I continued monitoring the grove but saw no more owls that month. Instead, I flushed mourning doves at dusk one day, and a pair of crows another. Near the end of January, as I walked along the path at the edge of the grove, an immature northern goshawk flew from the top of a 30-foot-high spruce tree overlooking First Field. Near dusk Bruce saw the same bird.

Three days later nature repeated itself. Again, I followed the trail around the edge of the spruces and again the northern goshawk erupted from the same spruce tree and flew across First Field. It paused briefly in a tree at the edge of the woods before disappearing over Laurel Ridge. Goshawks eat larger prey–rabbits, gray squirrels, ruffed grouse, crows, small hawks, owls, woodpeckers, and blue jays, for instance, all of which use the spruce grove or overgrown field. A week later our son Dave found the same bird hunting over a nearby clearcut.

In the meantime, Groundhog Day arrived. It was fifteen degrees out and windy, and by mid-morning I was wandering through the spruce grove, looking for tracks. Suddenly, a bird fluttered off. It was about the size of a mourning dove, maybe larger, but its wings did not whistle when it flew.

I had the feeling it had not left the grove, so I circled the trees from below and came into a small opening surrounded by spruces. On one tree branch I spotted a fluff of feathers. I was sure it was an owl, but what species was it? It was too large for a screech owl and too small for a great horned owl.

I pished softly, and slowly its head swiveled around. At the same time its ears seemed to grow, standing up higher and higher. Its facial disks were a rusty red and between its dark eyes, there was a pattern of black and white that made it look almost cat-like. It was a long-eared owl, the first one ever recorded on our property.

I talked quietly to it while I peered at it through my binocular. Then I slowly lowered it, still talking as soothingly as I could. Finally, I reached down slowly to pick up my walking stick. The owl blinked sleepily. As soon as I was out of sight of the owl, I walked quickly home to tell Bruce and Dave where to find it.

Dave set out immediately and found the owl in the same place. Bruce went up after lunch, lugging his camera and tripod, and the owl held still for him too as he took slides to document the 167th bird species here.

I was hopeful that we might have a permanent winter resident, since long-eared owls like dense conifer groves beside open fields. They especially like to eat deer mice, meadow voles, and shrews, all of which our land supplies in abundance. Other creatures that they eat and that live here are small birds, juvenile rabbits, star-nosed moles, long-tailed weasels, and ruffed grouse.

Because long-eared owls often roost communally in the winter, I wondered if there was more than one in the spruces. Roosts typically range from two to 20 birds, although as many as 100 have been seen. Sometimes, these secretive owls that inhabit dense groves in the winter use the same groves for breeding. They often nest in crows’ nests or close to them, and I knew that crows nest in our spruce grove even though I had never seen the nest.

Long-eared owls, according to the newly-published The Birds of Pennsylvania by Gerald M. McWilliams and Daniel W. Brauning, “are rare and local breeding residents…They are rarely reported during the breeding season and are easily overlooked because of their strictly nocturnal habits.” McWilliams and Brauning also claim that even winter sightings are rare and those are mostly east in the Piedmont or on the Lake Erie shore.

Last winter, though, long-eared owls were all over the commonwealth. “Local Notes,” in the Pennsylvania Birds journal, reported them in Chester, Bucks, Montgomery, Philadelphia, Dauphin, Northampton, Somerset, Venango, and Juniata counties. Best of all were the sightings in Berks County. They included one owl that roosted in a hemlock grove and another two to six owls in a Scotch pine planting. But most unusual were the three owls that chose the rafters of the Kutztown Produce Auction building–a long, single story, rectangular shed with a couple open sides. Those owls even sat still during an auction!

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel badly that even though I ranged back and forth through the spruce grove day after day, I never located the long-eared owl again. I assumed that it had left after only a short visit. But at the end of April, underneath a maze of tall, thick spruce, our son Steve discovered dozens of owl pellets filled with the tiny bones and skulls of mice and voles. A study of captive long-eared owls found that one owl produced two pellets a day in the winter. So the long-eared owl must have been in the grove for several weeks, no doubt holding as still as it did in the Kutzdown building.

I no longer feel guilty about planting Norway spruce trees. They obviously provide excellent cover for a wide range of birds and mammals. And a biologist told me that of all the non-natives you can plant, Norway spruces are the least objectionable because they rarely spread beyond where they are planted.

That was all the encouragement I needed to spend even more guilt-free time under spruce grove.



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