Saturday, May 12: International Migratory Bird Day. I spring awake at 6:00 a.m., pull out my earplugs, and start counting birds–eastern phoebe, black-capped chickadee, Baltimore oriole, tufted titmouse–as I dress, my windows wide open to a medley of birdsongs and calls this humid, warm morning.
Out to the yard I rush and try to separate out the songs: eastern towhee; common yellowthroat; the pair of northern flickers nesting in the black walnut tree beside the driveway; a male brown-headed cowbird; a big-mouth blue jay; a pair of gray catbirds in the lilac bush; a scarlet tanager and a wood thrush in the nearby forest; chipping, song, and field sparrows; a red-bellied woodpecker who nests in a black locust tree in the yard; a white-breasted nuthatch; northern cardinal; blue-gray gnatcatcher; great-crested flycatcher; mourning dove; black-throated green warbler; and five American goldfinches. Twenty-four species before breakfast. But I have to count numbers as well as species, and that makes it much harder.Our son Dave joins us for a breakfast of coffee cake that I baked the day before and cheese/mushroom omelets. He also adds American robin to my yard list. Maybe it won’t be such a bad count even though I’m doing it on my own, because my two birding sons are respectively in Venezuela at an ornithology conference (Mark) and in North Carolina getting the beetles he collected on our mountain last summer properly identified (Steve). Because of their absence, I decide to cover ground quickly and not sweat the small stuff.
By 7:00 a.m. I am heading across our First Field, intent on reaching Margaret’s Woods. But what is that I hear at the top of the field? Bee, bzz, bzz, bzz. It can only be a golden-winged warbler singing where one usually sings if it graces us with its increasingly scarce presence. Then I scan the sky as son Steve always reminds me to do just in time to see a great blue heron fly overhead. Both golden-winged warbler and great blue heron are unexpected sightings for our wooded mountaintop and seem like good omens.
Beginner’s luck, I soon find out, as I work hard for most of the expected species along Greenbrier Trail–American redstart, hooded warbler, four ruffed grouse, black-and-white warbler, yellow-billed cuckoo, and rose-breasted grosbeak, among others. And I have to keep counting the ubiquitous red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, and eastern towhees. Except for a rose-breasted grosbeak and one of several American redstarts, I am ear-birding because most of the trees have leafed out.
As I descend Dogwood Knoll, I can hear a Louisiana waterthrush singing down by the stream. Steaming back up the road, I encounter four common grackles. I also hear a couple Acadian flycatchers, and a ton of red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, eastern towhees, and black-throated green warblers.
Those same species keep adding up as I head along First Field Trail, and ovenbirds also increase their numbers. I spend altogether too much time trying to arouse the pair of sharp-shinned hawks nesting in the spruce grove. No matter where I look or stand or sit I can’t pry them from their hidden nest. But as I climb to the top of First Field, I see the first indigo buntings singing from the top of the still leafless black locust trees.
Along Laurel Ridge Trail I am mostly counting singing tanagers, ovenbirds, worm-eating warblers, black-and-white warblers, red-eyed vireos, and hooded warblers. But I also hear and then see a singing blackburnian warbler, watch a pair of blue jays building a nest, finally hear a couple blue-winged warblers, get a quick glimpse of a bay-breasted warbler, and while resting am practically knocked over by four yellow-billed cuckoos flying fast, low, and close as they chase past.
I wend my weary way homeward by 1:00 p.m. along Black Gum Trail and make soup and sandwiches for the three of us. Dave adds ruby-throated hummingbird to our yard list.
“I saw it from my desk as it foraged on the coral bells,” he says. “That’s the kind of birding I like to do.” He’s not one of my birding sons, but at least he keeps his eyes open.
Then, as the sky blackens for expected thunderstorms, I rest for a couple hours. I am, after all, recovering from a back attack; have walked three and a half rugged, up-and-down miles; and have entered fairly recently the young-old category.
By midafternoon, the thunderstorms have moved on and the air has cleared. I walk up to the deer exclosure and hear a wood thrush or two. I continue on to the Far Field, in search of the locals, such as downy and hairy woodpeckers and red-tailed hawk. I hear a downy but never a hairy and later, as I emerge again at the top of First Field, I finally spot a red-tail circling high in the sky just as an American crow flies past chasing a common raven. And, of course, I try again for those darn sharpies, but it’s a “no sharpie” day.
Fifty-one species so far and the day is waning. My turkey hunter friends oblige by reporting seven wild turkeys, two whip-poor-wills, a killdeer, and four blue-headed vireos for the mountain. Yeah! A nice, solid 55 species.
I step outside to join Bruce on the veranda near dusk and a duck flies up from the field. It’s a mallard in a photo finish, so to speak. And the winner, in species’ numbers, is red-eyed vireo at 20, closely followed by 17 scarlet tanagers, 15 eastern towhees, a 13 tie between ovenbirds and black-throated green warblers, and 11 wood thrushes. Fifty-six species, 229 birds, 4 1/2 miles on foot–who says I’m getting too old for this?