Alan’s Bench

We have a new bench on our property–a memorial bench–built to honor one of our youngest hunters. Seventeen-year-old Alan Harshberger died in a pickup truck collision, through no fault of his, on Memorial Day weekend 2000.

The bench was built by Tim Tyler, a hunter friend of ours who is a close friend of the Harshbergers. He situated the bench at the top of First Field tucked back in a grove of Norway spruce trees. There it overlooks the knoll where Alan had his hunting stand.

By November the waving green grasses that form a carpet for Alan’s Bench have turned beige. Stands of goldenrod and pearly everlasting have also dried and they gleam in November’s slanting sunlight.

The leaves have dropped from the trees on Alan’s Knoll, opening up a view of ridge after ridge, silver and blue in the distance and a dusky rose closeup. From Alan’s Bench we can see 55 miles on a clear autumn day and we name the mountains–Nittany Mountain, Egg Hill, Tussey Mountain, and our own Bald Eagle Ridge heading northeast to Williamsport.

Our ridge is one of the premier migratory routes for raptors and Alan’s Bench provides a front seat on the action. Last month we had a few good days of raptor-watching. In mid-October clouds scudded south across a blue sky and I spotted a sharp-shinned hawk high above and moving fast. It was followed by two red-tailed hawks. After a pause, another red-tail hovered for a few seconds and then flew on down the ridge, quickly followed by still another red-tail. Next came two sharpies, one right after the other, and an immature red-tail that performed a partial talon-drop as if practicing for next spring’s courting.

But October 27, when snow flurries alternated with sun and clouds and a biting wind blew from the northwest, I watched a succession of red-tails, four at a time, circling above Sapsucker Ridge. Another one hovered, but most red-tails soared straight down the ridge. It looked as if every red-tail in the north was flying south. There was rarely a moment when there wasn’t at least one red-tail in the sky. Altogether I counted 56 in half an hour.

Later, my husband Bruce went up to Alan’s Bench and reported the same numbers of red-tails still streaming south. To sit on Alan’s Bench, head back, feet on one of the slanting stools Tim later built, and watch those birds of the wind and clouds, is to lose myself in one of Nature’s greatest performances. And during lulls in the flight, my eyes turn to the spectacular gold, beige, brown, burnt orange, wine-red, pink, and purple-leaved trees of Laurel Ridge.

On autumn days when raptors are not migrating, I watch other birds–flocks of cedar waxwings and robins and once a yellow-bellied sapsucker that landed on a locust tree on Alan’s Knoll. Then it flew from tree to tree, resting on each briefly, before flying on over Sapsucker Ridge.

On that same early November day, warm breezes wafted over me from the southwest. Falling leaves, catching the upwelling of warm air, flew high above the ridge like birds, before beginning their inevitable twirling descent to the earth. Sixteen calling eastern bluebirds flew past and an orange sulphur butterfly spiraled up from the dried grasses, followed by a second one.

It seems as if birds, those creatures of earth and sky, are drawn to Alan’s Bench and Knoll. Back on the first day of summer, sitting on Alan’s Bench, I heard a harsh “shrack-shrack” call. A sharpie flew up and perched for a moment at the top of a dead locust in the center of Alan’s Knoll, giving me time to note its reddish breast and neck, speckled reddish belly, brown back blotched with white, and a banded, flat-edged tail. Then it dove back down into the leafy cover.

Blue jays appeared, first silently, then scolding, and the sharpie flew up to the top of another dead snag. Again I heard “shrack-shrack.” Again the sharpie dove down and again it came up, this time on still another tall snag while at least two blue jays silently watched it. But when the sharpie started to groom its breast feathers and under its wings, the blue jays moved off as if the raptor was no longer a threat.

Eastern towhees called; common yellowthroats sang; black-capped chickadees “dee-deed.” In the distance, a ruffed grouse drummed, a pileated woodpecker called, and a scarlet tanager sang. Next field sparrows and chipping sparrows sang. Then an American goldfinch undulated overhead and a crow flapped past not far from the sharpie, but the crow ignored the little raptor.

Suddenly, a blue jay flew in and, scolding loudly, dove at the sharpie before landing on a nearby snag. The blue jay watched the raptor for a few minutes and then dove just below the sharpie’s perch before flying to another tree as if in warning. The sharpie looked down as the blue jay dove, but remained stolidly on its perch and continued to groom itself.

Finally, the blue jay pushed its luck and landed directly below the sharpie’s perch. This was too much for the raptor and it dove down at the blue jay, “shrack-shracking” while the blue jay yelled “jay-jay.” The sharpie disappeared for a moment, reappeared in the first snag I saw it on, dove, “shrack-shracked” again, and again disappeared into the underbrush. It was like watching a live nature show while sitting in a comfortable chair. All around me birds continued to sing and fly. Chimney swifts seined the air above.

At last the sharpie show ended or so I thought. But as I got up and walked on I realized that the sharpie was sitting on the one snag hidden from Alan’s Bench by a live locust tree. Although it was a first year juvenile bird, judging by its still brown back, it had been resourceful enough to make it through the winter and was determined, that day, to catch a meal. So down it dove again as I continued my walk.

On the thirtieth of July I walked up to rest on Alan’s Bench and heard a peculiar, rattling, gargling sound–“ray,ray, ray”–that went on and on. Finally, I tracked it to an open, grassy area amid the spruces. Then I heard another, more deeply pitched rattle that sounded vaguely cuckoo-like. I sat on the ground to listen and wait.

At last I saw the wriggling tail of a young bird, the beige-brown top of its head, and its off-white face, and I heard the beginning of a cuckoo call. After much straining to see through the dense branches of the spruce tree, I spotted the black bill and red eye ring of an adult black-billed cuckoo. It had a caterpillar in its beak. Since both look-alike cuckoo parents feed fledglings, I didn’t know whether it was the male or female. I sat there for a long time watching as the parent encouraged its youngster to fly into deeper cover in the same tree. It floundered down, barely able to stay airborne. There seemed to be only one fully-feathered young. But apparently, because eggs are laid at infrequent intervals, black-billed cuckoo nestlings often vary in age so there might have been others still in the nest or the rest might have already flown off.

Like other black-billed cuckoo nestlings, it was in its climbing phase, a phase that lasts for about two weeks before it fledges. Once Francis H. Herrick, who studied the home life of the black-billed cuckoo back in 1935, observed three young birds leave their nest. The oldest one…”sat upright for some minutes and gazed into its outer world. Then, directing its attention to a small branch and ducking its head as if contemplating flight, with a leap it cleared the nest, and, catching hold of a twig, with both feet, it swung free with acrobatic dexterity. In another moment it had pulled itself up and was comfortably perched. If such a first perch is placed in the shade and the young bird is promptly fed, it may keep to it for a long time; but it can move about, and should it drop to the ground, it can mount to safety again.” So, perhaps, the youngster I was watching still had days to go before it was on its own. On the other hand, I returned in subsequent days and never heard or saw another cuckoo.

Later I read that black-billed cuckoos are extremely secretive birds and not much is known about their home life. To have observed as much as I did was a rare privilege. Had I not been resting on Alan’s Bench, I never would have heard and then seen such an unusual sight.

But another November is here and the plaque on the bench–“In Memory of Alan L. Harshberger 1983-2000 The Tim Tyler Family”–reminds me of the fine young boy who will never see another hunting season.

Last December, on an overcast day, I sat on Coyote Bench. Alan’s father Charlie, who was hunting, stopped to talk. A doe I had spotted earlier below the Far Field Road walked up the road toward us as if she were listening to our conversation about Alan. We were remembering Alan’s first doe and his hope that the following fall he would get his first buck. But he never had that chance.

“He will remain forever 17, Charlie,” was all I could think to say.

Sitting on Alan’s Bench later, I heard several shots in the distance. I also heard a raven and crows. But mostly I listened to the whisper of dried grasses as they waved in the breeze.

Finally, it cleared into a blue-skied, cloud-studded day and the sun shone, brightly illuminating Alan’s Knoll. But Alan’s Bench remained in the shadow of the spruce trees.



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