After days of fighting my arthritic left foot and back last May, I gave up wandering our trails during my favorite time of year. Instead, I spent hours watching and listening for birds from our veranda.
The veranda side of our house faces a roughly-cut patch of grass, the driveway, our 37-acre overgrown First Field and our large bank barn. Beyond the field a wooded Sapsucker Ridge rises. The trees on the veranda side are mostly black walnuts along with a young tulip tree our son, Dave, planted several years ago off one corner of the veranda and century-old lilac shrubs at the other corner.
From the veranda I can also see our backyard lined with a thick growth of forsythia. Beyond is our garage at the end of our road. Our home is perched atop a bluff so our front yard drops off steeply to an uncut old lawn, a small stream and wetland area. Dave also transplanted several trees from our surrounding forest—white pine, red oak, and more tulip trees–to eventually replace century-old black locust trees as they topple and split during frequent wind storms.
Our yard on the other side of the house from the veranda slopes down through a couple dying ash trees and a heavy undergrowth of wildflowers and grasses to a flat, grassy area before it reaches the Laurel Ridge forest. In other words, our house sits in the midst of field and wooded edge habitat, and although my hearing is not as sharp as it used to be, I can still hear forest and field birds singing and calling while sitting on the veranda.
For instance, on International Migratory Bird Day, I heard and counted 30 species during a couple morning hours on the veranda even though it was cool and foggy. Most notable were the loud “wheeps” of the first great-crested flycatcher of the season. This cavity-nesting flycatcher thrives in forested openings with tall, dead trees where it builds its snakeskin-lined nest.
Nearly all the birds that return in May breed on our mountain. The blue-gray gnatcatchers build their nest on a black locust branch. The gray catbirds favor the forsythia hedge and the lilacs, flying back and forth in front of the veranda, living their busy, noisy lives, and the northern cardinals tuck their nest in the one remaining multi-flora rose bush beside our driveway.
Most lively of all are the Carolina wrens. After nearly a week of rain, I managed to walk up to our two-car, cement-block garage where an eastern phoebe family always nests on one of the ledges inside the garage. The phoebe female sat tightly on a nest in the back of the garage while Carolina wrens were feeding nestlings on the ledge beside our car. Both parents had caterpillars in their bills and scolded loudly when I walked into the garage. I retreated but checked again later when one Carolina wren scuttled out from beneath the car and flew outside protesting my presence.
That was on May 18. The following evening we had a huge storm as wind swept rain over the veranda. Then we noticed two Carolina wren fledglings clinging by their feet to the living room/veranda window screen, while a third one huddled on the floor below. When Bruce and I went outside to see if we could help them, the adults appeared, and off they all flew into the storm around the house to the back porch. This turned out to be the garage ledge family. After that they acted as if they belonged on the veranda and the back porch and often scolded us when we appeared.
One afternoon they flew on to the veranda table and vocally protested when Bruce sat on his usual seat close by. Near dusk they came chattering into an old phoebe nest on top of the veranda. We counted the three fledglings as they settled in for the night and were serenaded by their parents in the lilac shrub. Without doubt, Carolina wrens are the most charming and entertaining of any songbirds we have here.
Early in May Virginia bluebells bloomed in our backyard as well as a wide swath of ajuga in our lawn. Both blue-colored flowers attracted returning ruby-throated hummingbirds. One warm afternoon I pulled on a red sweatshirt, went outside to join Bruce on the veranda, and told him I was going to attract a hummingbird. Almost immediately a hummingbird buzzed me as Bruce watched. Our daughter-in-law Paola, down in the guesthouse, faithfully hung three hummingbird feeders from the front porch and spent hours watching those feisty birds compete for food.
Then there was the hen turkey. I’m not certain she’s the same one we see every spring, but she always seems to have a hidden nest somewhere in First Field or maybe in the woods at the base of Sapsucker Ridge. Last spring she first appeared walking down our driveway on the morning of May 6 when I stepped outside. After that we saw her numerous times. One afternoon I spotted her on the barn bank while I sat on the veranda. She walked up close to the edge of the driveway in First Field and then paraded across the middle of the field. The next day I saw her on the Laurel Ridge side of the house in the flat area. But with all her walking about we have never seen her with a family. I wondered if she had lost her young because of the incessant rain and storms or predators or perhaps she was infertile.
Still another mystery was what happened to our bluebird couple. Early in the spring we had put up a new bluebird nesting box on a power pole beside an open area near the garage. The bluebirds occupied it, but the box was far enough away from the veranda that I only watched it from afar.
The same day the hen turkey first walked down the driveway, I saw a tree swallow, his deep blue back reflected in the sunlight, swoop through the air near the bluebird box as if he wanted that nest box for himself. But the male bluebird perched above the box in a watchful stance and at last the tree swallow gave up, flew the length of First Field toward the spruce grove and disappeared.
I was so engaged with all the birds I was watching, that it was several weeks before I realized that I hadn’t seen the bluebirds for a while. On a clear day in late May I took a short walk across the lawn and up the driveway, displacing three small rabbits eating grass in the median strip. That’s when I noticed a strange figure blocking the entrance to the bluebird box and went over to have a look. It was the desiccated tail of the female bluebird. I called Bruce to help me open the nest box and we discovered the dried-up female bluebird hanging over her complete nest but there was no sign of chicks or eggs. I wondered if the male had been unable to find enough food for her during the many rain storms or if he had starved or been killed by a predator.
As I sat on the veranda day after day, I noticed that the suite of singing birds changed from hour to hour. And almost every day there were new arrivals. The same day the bluebird held off the tree swallow, the first indigo bunting sang from the topmost branch of a medium-sized walnut tree in the middle of First Field. On May 18 in mid-afternoon I heard the first eastern wood-pewee singing his lazy “pee-a-wee.” The next day sitting in my study with the window open, I heard the blasting song of the returning Baltimore oriole. Two days later, a cerulean warbler sang in the backyard walnut trees. That was the last bird species to return.
I listened to my favorite songsters, the wood thrushes, every morning and evening and a whip-poor-will at 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. as he circled the house calling. There were frequent song contests between male scarlet tanagers up in the walnut trees. And the randy chipping sparrows often mated on black walnut branches.
On a beautiful Memorial Day I spent from dawn to dusk outside listening to and watching our yard and field birds. Two surprise birds were the hooded warbler that landed on top of a nearby veranda chair and the yellow warbler singing down near the old apple tree at the edge of First Field beside the driveway. Another bonus at 7:06 p.m. was a barred owl that called from Sapsucker Ridge.
All in all, I had had a memorable Memorial Day and sedentary May in which I recorded 45 bird species from common ravens and turkey vultures to a Cooper’s hawk and common yellowthroats.