March Journal Highlights

Arizona Sojourn

March 20. Because a snowstorm developed the day before we were to leave for the Pittsburgh airport and flight to Memphis, Bruce hurried us out a day early, on March 7, and we barely made it down our road, chains on all four tires, through six new inches of snow. But at least I was able to admire the flock of red-winged blackbirds at the feeder area before we left. Then, the snow almost all melted while were were gone, and Steve and Dave sent us “spring is here” e-mails as early arrivals such as robins, woodcocks, and phoebes appeared. Meanwhile, we were enjoying warm spring weather in Mississippi and Arizona.

Then, a new e-mail message from the boys–more cold and eight new inches of wet snow on March 16 and 17 (always we must beware the Ides of March!) two days before we were to arrive home. We hit driving rain in Pittsburgh that changed to sleet and snow by the time we crested Laurel Mountain and that continued the rest of the way home.

The snow had settled a bit, but still it was a struggle to drive up the road without chains on the tires through the wet snow, and when Bruce tried to back on to the lawn, first the car skidded and then it stuck fast. We felt as if nothing much had changed during our almost two weeks away.

I counted five fox sparrows and six cardinals at the feeding area late yesterday afternoon, and this morning at least five song sparrows.

A beautiful day today and spring officially begins this evening at 8:07. Robins called as I stepped outside at 10:00 a.m. for a walk to the Far Field through about four inches of standing snow. The sun was warm and it was windy–March as we know it in central Pennsylvania.

Goodbye to redbuds, trillium, and cut-leaved toothwort in Memphis and ninety degrees and dry in desert Arizona, seventy degrees and breezy in the mountains. Breathing is harder for me here, and I woke up choking form congestion in my lungs as they readjust to humid, polluted eastern air.

Still, I was able to walk quite easily uphill here despite too much sitting in airplanes, airports and cars. I guess the hikes we took on Mt. Lemmon, in Madera and Oak Creek canyons, and at several desert national monuments kept me in shape. At least I don’t seem to have lost any ground. I love the desert, but the green and abundantly watered eastern United States would be difficult to leave forever. if only it weren’t so polluted and paved over. Those wide-open spaces in nothern Arizona are tempting at 8,000 feet above sea level around Flagstaff, the only place I would ever consider living in the state. They have four seasons, and patches of snow still sat in the shaded areas. But even now we see more mammals and birds here than we saw there, except for the hummingbirds at feeders in Madera Canyon. Eva kept hoping to see mammals, but stare as we might at the passing landscape, we could only add rock squirrels at the Grand Canyon. Canyon wrens and Gila woodpeckers were almost everywhere, but that was about it. Even raptors were absent, although they were due in migration soon.

It was wonderful to spend a holiday with my granddaughter Eva, who displayed all the joy of a youngster in a new place. Visiting with my writing friend Ken Lamberton and his wife Karen for several days also added to our pleasure, since both are lifelong residents of Tucson.

But back here, sitting on Coyote Bench, I heard white-breasted nuthatches “yanking,” chickadees “fee-beeing,” and pileateds, hairies, and red-bellieds calling.

Rite of Spring

March 21. Twenty-two degrees at dawn and clear. On this first full day of spring, I was awakened by the sad song of the mourning dove outside my window. Cardinals, song sparrows, and juncoes added to the dawn chorus.

Robins sang lustily in Margaret’s Woods, and I stopped to sit, amidst the frozen, patchy snow, to listen to a singing tree sparrow along Greenbrier Trail. And then, close by and loud–“toe-hee.” Could it be the same male from beyond the Second Thicket? Surely he is not an early returnee. Was he, in effect, the same towhee that was here for Christmas Bird Count 2005? As the towhee flies, it’s less than two miles from here to the Second Thicket. If so, he has run out of food and is searching farther afield. What a surprise!

A downy drummed in the distance, quite unlike the thunderous drumbeat of a pileated earlier in Margaret’s Woods. A brown-headed cowbird also sang. And the towhee continued to “toe-hee” all around me, though I never caught a glimpse of him. Cardinals also sang, so despite the cold and snow, spring is truly here.

After lunch, I stood outside and heard the first eastern phoebe “songs” of the season, having missed last week’s return.

March 22. Thirty-two degrees at dawn, warming up to 62 by noon. Steve and Elanor came up this morning, and while Elanor threw stones from the driveway into the ditch flowing with water, a woodcock suddenly flew up from where it must have been hunkered down in the dried grasses across the driveway, startling all of us. Off it flew, over the guesthouse towards the woods, giving us a lovely view of its cocked bill and reddish-brown body.

Bruce and Elanor also found five garter snakes out around the old, silted-in well, a couple of which balled up briefly. Meanwhile, Steve and I had walked up a nearly snow-free First Field to Alan’s Bench, which was still deep in wet snow. Steve spotted a ground beetle walking over the snow–another surprise. “I didn’t know they’d be out this early and walking on the snow,” he said.

March 24. The many hard, warm rains we’ve had over the last couple days have turned the mountain brown and beige and the moss bright green, leaving only a couple patches of icy snow in the shade of the spruce grove. Water flowed through ditches and drainpipes and the vernal ponds on Sapsucker Ridge were full and clear, reflecting the trees in wavering light as a breeze ruffled the water.

Mountain laurel along Guesthouse and Laurel Ridge trails looked sad, sick, and dying, for the most part. Only a few tall, medium-sized and small ones looked good and had new buds. It’s hard to believe that a leaf fungus is the only cause of what appears to be a great die-off of our state wildflower.

March 26. Today the yard filled and swelled with birdsong–dozens of trilling juncos, singing cardinals, bluebirds, a cowbird or two, song sparrows, phoebes, and the first field sparrow! But Greenbrier Trail was unusually quiet, although I watched a turkey vulture fly above the hollow and heard and saw a couple golden-crowned kinglets.

Ten Springs Trail was similarly quiet except for a winter wren who seemed to be practicing a half-finished song. On Ten Springs Extension I encountered a dozen or so golden-crowned kinglets, but as I sat beside the stream, the roar of water made it difficult to hear even the loudest birds. Still, more kinglets called and foraged overhead. They were definitely on the move north. Surrounded by those gossamer little creatures, wherever I looked I saw them, especially in the hemlocks. I hoped they were feasting on woolly adelgids.

I also saw at least five winter wrens, which are as close to water sprites as we have in the hollow. Brown creepers foraged on trees across from the corral below the guesthouse. Then I heard a strange, buzzing sound that I finally identified as a pair of scolding winter wrens, incensed by the feral cat hiding in the shrubbery. When I chased off the cat, I was rewarded with a song! After chasing after a singing wren deep in the hollow, I heard its song instead on my home grounds, along with song sparrows. What a musical combination.

I also watched a red-bellied drumming on a dead locust limb in our yard. Below it is a woodpecker hole. I wonder if that is where it nests every year. Flickers also called.

A Compton’s tortoiseshell flew erratically over the lawn as I took off my boots.

March 27. Sixty-one degrees at dawn and clear. An opossum fed below the back steps on birdseed between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. On this Feederwatch day, I recorded the first chipping sparrow of the season. Flickers called, along with red-bellieds, and phoebes, bluebirds, cardinals, titmice, and juncos were in full throat this unseasonably warm day in late March. But is it unseasonable or another sign of global warming? Too bad we can’t simply sit back, relax, and enjoy this early gift of spring.

I went down to check the wood frog pond and one frog dove under the duckweed. Coltsfoot lit my way with their golden disks.

There was silence along Guesthouse and Laurel Ridge trails, but when I entered the spruce grove I heard a whickering, protesting call from a sharpie. I couldn’t spot the bird, but I assume last year’s pair is setting up housekeeping again in the hidden depths of the grove.

Inspired by the day, I came home and played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I do every spring. No work excites me more than this one and if I could go back in time, I would want to be in Paris when this piece was first played to a mostly disapproving audience.

Red-bellieds drummed and called as I sat out on the veranda in the afternoon. Flickers tried to claim the black walnut tree nesthole, but it was fiercely guarded by the resident gray squirrel. Bluebirds and cardinals sang. A red-tail sailed over the field and turkey vultures frequently rocked past. A brown creeper silently inspected the bark of a black walnut tree and as it sprialed upward, it looked like a piece of moving bark. Juncos trilled unceasingly. A downy called as it too ascended a walnut tree.



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