Chasing Breeding Birds

“You know you’re getting old when you start repeating yourself,” I thought when I first heard about Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas project.

“Been there, done that,” I said and immediately signed up last spring and became the “owner” of the two blocks that include our property. The same, yet different, is probably an apt description of the present effort. Instead of relying on paper reports of the breeding birds we observe in our blocks, we claim our blocks and send in our reports via the computer, although folks without access to the internet can still participate the “old-fashioned” way.

Having previously discovered that sending reports in electronically for Project Feederwatch was much easier than filling in the charts they sent by snail mail, I figured that it would be just as easy to do the same for my atlas records. Well, it wasn’t. For several months, I was so frustrated that I didn’t even try after my initial repeated rejection by the program. It turns out that other frustrated participants and the people in charge of the program more or less served as guinea pigs, and when I finally took a deep breath and tried again, with the help of my husband Bruce, it worked. This year should be a breeze now that I’ve conquered the electronic bogeyman.

The line between my two blocks runs across the top of First Field directly below the spruce grove so every time I took a walk, I kept two lists of the birds I heard and saw. My home block is 61c65. It includes the hollow, the former clearcut, and a fair portion of both Sapsucker and Laurel ridges. What I call the Far Field block–61c56–takes in the spruce grove, the road to the Far Field, the Far Field itself and beyond. These blocks are large, and I can’t hope to completely cover them, but anyone who makes observations in my blocks is also free to report them either electronically or to the Project Coordinator Robert S. Mulvihill at the Powdermill Nature Reserve.

The seventeen breeding codes for the Second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas are similar to those of the first atlas, and I had no trouble using them. For instance, “X” means “possible,” and is defined as “an individual of a species seen or heard in suitable nesting habitat within safe dates, but not exhibiting any of the breeding behaviors described in” the other categories.

Initially, all my bird observations fell into the “possible” category–69 species in my home block (officially Tyrone 5) and 43 species in the Far Field block (officially Tipton 6). Many remained there throughout the season, but day by day some of the “possibles” became “probables” and even “confirmed” breeding birds.

Because I know my territory well, walk the trails every day, and have, over the years, learned the songs and calls of all the birds that live here, compiling the “probables” was easy. Confirming them was harder because I had to see an adult bird carrying nesting material, food, or fecal sac, observe nest-building, watch a distraction display such as a ruffed grouse feigning an injury, find a recently fledged young, or a nest with eggs or young, or see an adult feeding fledged young. All such discoveries were serendipitous as far as I was concerned.

Yard birds in my home block were particularly easy. One family of eastern phoebes plastered their nest beneath the eaves of our springhouse and another built theirs on top of one of the porticos on our veranda. The springhouse nest, filled with five eggs, was a source of wonder to our four-year-old great niece Morgan visiting from New Jersey. Later, when our nephew Patrick visited, that same nest contained four young phoebes and a huge young cowbird. The cowbird fluttered off the nest and on to the ground when Patrick appeared. He was distressed and wanted to return it to the nest, but I explained to him that it would take more than its share of food from its unwitting foster parents and deprive its foster siblings of food. Nevertheless, we later found that it was strong enough to fly back into the nest. Still, those phoebes did fledge successfully on June 1.

The veranda phoebe nest allowed our visiting granddaughter Eva to watch the parents feeding the young from our upstairs hall window. That family also fledged successfully.

During Eva’s visit in late May and early June, she and our son Dave also discovered an eastern towhee nest with eggs in a barberry bush, and she and our son Steve discovered a turkey sitting on her nest at the base of a beech tree near our road.

Best of all, from Eva’s point of view, was the last walk we took before she went home to Mississippi. As we started down First Field, a hen turkey jumped up from the tall grass a couple feet in front of Eva. She was so startled she screamed and saw one week-old chick run. The mother hen, clucking loudly, walked slowly away, and Eva, entranced by her seeming tameness, followed her on to the Laurel Ridge Trail. Eventually, I persuaded her to leave so the mother could return to her hidden chicks.

I made my own discoveries almost every day in May, June, and early July. On May 16, I stopped to rest on a log beside Greenbrier Trail and was continually scolded by a female hooded warbler. After a while she “showed” me her nest. She landed on it, inside a barberry hedge, moved around, and then flew off. I checked it and found no eggs, but on June 2 she was sitting tightly on it.

Another bird that “showed” me her nest was the Acadian flycatcher. As I walked up the road that same June 2, an Acadian flycatcher scolded. Knowing that they often like to build their nests near the tip of a beech tree limb, I scanned all the small beech trees and couldn’t see a nest. It turned out to be suspended from the branch of a witch hazel tree overhanging the road.

One bird that did not show me its nest was the sharp-shinned hawk. Yet I suspected, as early as April 22 when a sharpie flew out from the Norway spruce grove, landed nearby, and emitted its high-pitched “creer-creer” call, that a pair was nesting there. Still, I played a cat-and-mouse game, mostly with the male, throughout the spring.

But on July 6, as I approached the grove, the male flew out, landed in a nearby black locust tree, and called “creer-creer-creer.” Then, the female suddenly flew from the vicinity where I thought I had found a nest back in May. She too called but disappeared over the hill while the male continued “creering” and flying above me.

Sharpies are so secretive during nesting that little is known of their nesting life. I never saw a sign of life in what I though was their nest built in a dense, double-spired spruce tree. Yet every time I approached the spruce grove, the male would either fly out and call or he would be sitting on the same black locust tree limb at the back of the grove. This spot provided a view of all possible predators including the female red-tailed hawk I saw him chase away on June 6. He looked like the proverbial bee chasing a bear, but even though she seemed to shrug off his repeated diving, she eventually disappeared over Laurel Ridge.

Finally, on July 9, I had my proof. The male sharpie flew over and called as I emerged on the far side of the spruce grove. I heard another, lower pitched call, coming from the deciduous forest near the grove, and then an immature sharpie landed and called “wheep-wheep-wheep” directly above me.

Throughout the month I heard and often saw young sharpies crying “wheep-wheep-wheep” and their parents answering “kik-kik-kik.” Sometimes they flew and called on the ridges and even near our house. The “wheeping” calls of the young sharpies continued into mid-August and several times I saw two together. There may have been more–sharpies average four to five young–but I never saw them.

Although the sharpie nesting was the highlight of my 2004 Breeding Bird Atlas “work,” I did have other exciting confirmations. On June 20, in the late afternoon, cedar waxwings flew continuously to one black walnut tree branch, half-hidden by leaves, and then down into the yard. It looked as if they were gathering either food or nesting material. In early evening, one flew down in front of me to gather something and then flew up to the tree branch where another waxwing was moving around. I thought I could see a nest on the branch, but I wasn’t certain.

Then, on July 13, while sitting on our veranda, I heard scolding calls and saw an adult cedar waxwing perched on our clothesline that repeatedly dove down into the tall grass. I rushed up to look and there sat a small, grayish-brown, cedar waxwing fledgling sporting a white stripe near its eye, a tiny crest, and the yellow stripe on its tail. Both parents dove at me when I tried to pick it up and put it in shrubbery so I left them to solve their own problems.

In addition to the young cedar waxwing, I also saw an adult American kestrel with two immatures perched on our electric wire and a fledgling Carolina wren in our lilac bush.

Baltimore orioles suspended their nest from a black walnut branch that overhangs our driveway; black-capped chickadees nested in an old fencepost near the barn; and gray catbirds built their nest in a thicket of forsythia. I watched a black-throated green warbler gather nesting materials along Greenbrier Trail, a field sparrow doing the same in First Field, and a female wood thrush, accompanied by a male, collecting dead leaves and dried grasses for a late nesting on July 6.

Several birds also performed distraction displays. Along Black Gum Trail one morning, I heard scolding and walked off the trail and “pished.” A blue-headed vireo dove at my head and barely missed me. I couldn’t find the nest but as soon as I walked away he resumed his singing. A histrionic ovenbird blundered around in the underbrush as if it was drunk, bumping into shrubs, and then flew up and down. A Louisiana waterthrush, beside our stream, a worm-eating warbler on the Black Gum Trail, and a brown thrasher, at the edge of the woods, also distraction displayed.

I even managed to watch birds gathering food for their young. Most notable were a male scarlet tanager at the edge of the Far Field Road and a yellow-billed cuckoo at the edge of the Far Field.

I had my disappointments though. A cerulean warbler sang in our yard, as one had the previous year, throughout June. So too did one at the Far Field. Yet they remained on the “possible” list. I would like to have confirmed them because they are, along with several other species I confirmed in my blocks–Louisiana waterthrush, black-throated green warbler, sharp-shinned hawk, wood thrush, and worm-eating warbler–of “general conservation interest” to the Atlas. None of my birds made the higher categories–“regional rarity” or “statewide rarity.” In past years we have had at least two “regional rarities” nesting here–golden-crowned kinglet and winter wren–but not last year.

Still, the quest for breeding birds adds a lot of interest to my daily walks in late spring and early summer and makes me more aware of what is going on in the avian world. And there is always the chance that I’ll discover some of those rarities.


One response to “Chasing Breeding Birds”

  1. Earth Day « Marcia Bonta Avatar

    […] I walked on to the spruce grove, and as I started up through the trees, a female sharp-shinned hawk flew out of the treetops protesting in her mild way. She joined the male who was perched on a tree branch at the edge of the woods. So once again, for the fourth year in a row, they are nesting in the spruce grove. […]

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