Every April I expect more from the month than it gives me. It warms up and then it freezes. It rains then it snows. But through all the changes in the weather, spring forges ahead. Wood frogs mate in the mountaintop ponds. Spring peepers call in the First Field wetland. Best of all are the migrating bird species that appear to set up housekeeping here or that make our mountain a fuel stop on their way farther north.
First to arrive on April Fools’ Day last spring was a yellow-bellied sapsucker that was drilling sap wells in a hickory tree along Ten Springs Trail. Every spring I hear their mewing cries before I see them. Usually they are males with their flaming red throats because they arrive a week ahead of the white-throated females. But both sexes have red crowns, dull, golden breasts and bellies and black faces, wings, and backs accented by white.
They don’t stay here long because they nest in the hardwood forests across the northern tier of Pennsylvania. More commonly, they nest in the forests of Canada and the northeastern United States. And unlike most of our migrant birds, their numbers are increasing.
Next to appear, on the ninth of April, was a brown thrasher. Nearly always I’m treated to several days of nonstop, repetitive songs by these sleek, cinnamon-brown, long-tailed singers. Mimic thrushes like gray catbirds and northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers are known to have more than 2000 songs in their repertoires.
Brown thrashers breed throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States in brushy environments such as our First Field and its surrounding thickets. In Pennsylvania their numbers have held firm between the atlasing periods after a decline during the 1970s and early 1980s according to the annual Breeding Bird Surveys that were done then. During the second Atlas period (2004-2009) the Pennsylvania population was estimated to be 80,000 singing males.
The following day at 8:30 p.m. I joined our son Dave outside as we listened to the first American woodcock of the season peenting, flying up into the sky, and twittering as he plummeted back to earth. We had been listening for this species that usually performs here in March and had almost given up hope since folks in the valleys had been finding woodcock females on hidden nests for over a week. Still, we were grateful not to miss this spring ritual even though our woodcock was a johnny-come-lately.
Two days later, high up in the Second Thicket near the top of Sapsucker Ridge, I heard the first, unmistakable loud “zhee” of a blue-gray gnatcatcher. Smaller than chickadees, they resemble miniature mockingbirds with white breasts and long, black tails edged in white that usually stick almost straight up from their blue-gray backs.
I knew I could expect a pair to build their nest high in a yard black locust tree as they have during most of the 48 years we have lived here. They breed from coast to coast, north to south, and even deep into Mexico. In Pennsylvania they prefer to nest in the edges of deciduous and mixed woodlands. Noisy in their courting and nest-building, they are easy to watch as they construct small nests anywhere from a few feet off the ground to 70 feet high on horizontal branches.
During that same walk, I saw the first hermit thrush of spring halfway up a hill on Sapsucker Ridge Trail where I always see migrating hermit thrushes. Unfortunately, they fly seven miles across Logan Valley to the Allegheny Front to sing and nest. Distinguished from other thrushes by their reddish tails that dip slowly up and down when they perch, they are secretive and mute, rarely sharing their exquisite song here.
The only spotted thrush that winters north of the United States border with Mexico, they like to nest in mature and second-growth high elevation mixed deciduous-coniferous forests in Pennsylvania and as far north as the boreal and hardwood forests of Canada and the northern United States. This species too is thriving in Pennsylvania with as many as five singing males per kilometer (0.6 mile) in our north-central high elevation forests.
Sitting on Alan’s Bench on a warm April 13 I spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet foraging on the young Norway spruces across from the bench. Usually I hear these tiny birds calling “look-at-me, look-at-me” before they sing a song that warbles all over the scale. The perky, greenish-gray males erect ruby-red patches on top of their heads when they are excited.
Although they breed in the coniferous forests of northern New England and Canada, they always spend a couple weeks here before they move on. Friendly and fearless, they often allow me to watch them closely as the males chase each other, each one displaying his crown.
The following day I walked down our road to listen for the pair of Louisiana waterthrushes that Dave had found the previous day poking in the streambank as if searching for a nest site. I heard one waterthrush singing near Dogwood Knoll. But farther down the road, Waterthrush Bench earned its name as three waterthrushes countersang, flew back and forth over the stream, and up the road bank and back almost directly below me, all seemingly contesting that section of the stream, but then they flew farther down above the stream, singing and chasing each other.
I continued to the bottom of our mile-and-a-half road, pulling garlic mustard and pitching off fallen rocks and branches from the road. When I returned to Waterthrush Bench an hour later, the trio of waterthrushes were still singing, chasing, and poking into the ground. All the while their tails swayed like metronomes marking their own music. Their ringing songs announced the arrival of the first warbler species of spring.
Although waterthrushes resemble members of the thrush family, with brown backs and brown streaking on white underparts, they also have white throats, white eyebrow stripes and long, pink legs the same as northern waterthrushes and ovenbirds, all of which are similarly colored and the only three species in the Seiurus warbler genus.
In Pennsylvania, Louisiana waterthrushes are near the northern edge of their core range and are especially abundant in our own Ridge and Valley Province, according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Our state, as a whole, contains about eight percent of the species’ global population with an estimated 35,000 singing males, and they are doing well here as long as we have the extensive forest and high-quality streams they depend on.
By April 20 returning and migrating birds were appearing almost every day. In the Dogwood Hollow Knoll area I heard the first “tee-cher,” “tee-cher” of an ovenbird. Years ago I found, along Guesthouse Trail, an ovenbird female building her nest. It looked like the domed-covered Dutch oven ovenbirds were named for. I was privileged to watch her through nest-building, egg-laying, feeding her nestlings, and finally when they fledged.
Ovenbirds are distinguished from the waterthrushes by an orange stripe outlined in black at the top of their heads. They also like to nest in large older deciduous or mixed forests such as we have here, from Canada to northern Georgia and Alabama. Pike and Forest counties had more than 25 singing males per kilometer and overall Pennsylvania is estimated to host a whopping 1.6 million males during the nesting season.
Then, on April 23, two more warbler species returned to nest on our mountain—black-throated green and black-and-white warblers. Another forest-interior bird, black-throated green warblers have black throats and mostly yellow faces and are said to favor hemlocks at higher elevations for nesting, but I hear and see them in our deciduous forest. When they arrive they sing their buzzy “zoo-zee” song but later they add “trees, trees, beautiful trees” to their repertoire.
Black-throated greens nest from southern Canada and the northeast United States west to Minnesota and south to Alabama and again Pennsylvania is an important breeding area for these lovely birds with an estimated 355,000 singing males.
Black-and-white warblers climb up tree trunks like nuthatches and are striped black and white. A summer resident in mature and second-growth forests in the eastern United States and southern Canada, they prefer a dense forest understory. Unfortunately, their numbers in Pennsylvania decreased 23 percent between the first and second atlasing periods, although we still host an estimated 250,000 singing males.
On the last day of April I saw a house wren in a young black walnut tree, heard the singing of a northern parula, and saw and heard several common yellowthroats. And finally the ethereal song of a wood thrush emanated from Sapsucker Ridge. All those species nest somewhere on our mountain. But none can match the singing of the only thrush species that spends its breeding season here. Almost always I can depend on a wood thrush to sing out the month.