Valentine Eagle

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Trail cam photos of the golden eagle at the spruce grove bait pile (email and RSS subscribers may need to click through to view the slideshow)

“Can you identify this bird?”

The question came to me via email last Valentine’s Day from our caretaker wife, Paula Scott. Accompanying her email was a photo from one of her trail cams of a large golden eagle. It was sitting on snowy ground beside the carcass of a dead cow on our talus slope.

Trish Miller, along with her husband Mike Lanzone, under the direction of Dr. Todd Katzner, at West Virginia University, had recruited numerous state forest employees and private landowners in Pennsylvania to be part of a larger study of winter eastern golden eagles in the Appalachians. Knowing Paula’s expertise with trail cams and also that golden eagles migrate along our ridge top, she had contacted Paula early in the autumn.

In her email to Paula and my husband and me as the landowners, Miller explained that this Golden Eagle Project had over 100 trail cam sites in several states but were lacking sites in Pennsylvania.

“We simply don’t have enough data on Pennsylvania wintering birds and it is especially important given your proximity to Sandy Ridge,” she wrote.

By Sandy Ridge she meant the section of the Allegheny Front across from our mountain and above the town of Tyrone where a couple dozen industrial wind mills had been erected despite Miller’s discovery, while studying for her Ph.D., that golden eagles use that area for foraging during the winter.

When Paula agreed to participate, Miller sent her a copy of the protocol for the study which she shared with me. The goal of the project was to estimate the population size of wintering golden eagles in the Appalachians. To accomplish this goal, they wanted many photographs of individual golden eagles. Then they planned to use a specially designed software package to identify individuals. Once they had identified individual eagles, they could treat the photographs as “captures’ and use them to estimate golden eagle numbers.

Trail cameras had to be set to take a picture every minute and visited every two to five days. They also had to be on a stake or small tree six feet from the carcass and the lens itself 18 to 24 inches above the ground.

The study was scheduled for two to four weeks between January 1 and February 15. Bait sites needed to be on remote mountaintop areas with small clearings and large trees nearby so that an eagle could perch in one and watch the bait for a time before actually landing on it.

The protocol also suggested that the carcasses be road-killed deer for which the biologists had permits from the Game Commission.

“Do not use hunter-killed deer for bait,” the protocol warned. “Such carcasses almost always contain lead fragments which are toxic to eagles.”

skinning a dead cow

skinning a dead cow

Several weeks later, Miller came out to look at possible trail cam sites. She finally decided on a site behind our spruce grove and another at our Far Field. She also hoped, if a golden eagle came to the spruce grove bait area, to set up a blind and try to live trap and telemeter it so the biologists could find out where the individual nested.

The protocol warned participants to make sure they had enough bait to feed eagles because a small deer could disappear in a day. Knowing how many other creatures would use the bait, Troy and Paula decided to ask their farmer friends in the nearby valleys for cows that had died giving birth. As long as those cows had no antibiotics in their bodies and their heads were removed where the farmers had shot them, they received permission to use them as well as road-killed deer and, in one case, a dead calf.

On the seventh of January, Troy, Paula, and our son Dave drove a 700lb. dead cow in the back of their truck to the Far Field, staked it down, and set up a camera. That same day they took two deer and a dead calf, chained them together, and staked them down 40 feet into the top of First Field behind the spruce grove.

And then they waited. Paula faithfully checked her cameras and sent photos to me of a barred and great horned owl, crows, a bobcat, coyotes, a fisher, a red-tailed hawk, and raccoons at the bait both night and day but no golden eagles. As the weeks passed, she grew more and more frustrated.

Finally, on the seventh of February, she persuaded Troy to haul another dead cow up to the talus slope where, several years earlier, Miller had live-trapped a female golden eagle during fall migration. The rocks were icy, and they almost lost the frozen carcass off the deer sled on the steep hill.

landscape with dead cow (Far Field)

landscape with dead cow (Far Field)

Paula was elated when she retrieved her photos and saw the talus slope golden eagle. But then she went up after 2:00 p.m. on Valentine’s Day to retrieve the most recent spruce grove photos. A big bird took off as she emerged from the spruces and approached the carcass. It was a golden eagle that had been on the bait from 12:00 p.m. until 2:00 when she disturbed it. The photos were much better than the one from the talus slope, and we wondered if it was the same bird. Even though the official study ended the next day, Paula decided to keep all the carcasses out with her cameras as long as possible. She also notified Miller, but she was unable to come and try to live trap the eagle until the following week.

Would the eagle stay around that long? On February 18 there were 198 more golden eagle photos on the spruce grove camera, but the last photos had been taken on February 17 and there were no more.

A week later, on February 27, I saw a large bird flap off the Far Field bait. I thought it was a golden eagle, and Paula later verified that it was and that it had been coming into the bait for four days. My last sighting of a golden eagle there was March 2, but by then golden eagle migration was in full swing. In fact, because it was such a warm winter, our golden eagles may have all been migrants and not wintering birds.

In the meantime, Miller and Lanzone had been rushing all over the state telemetering birds at other bait sites. They managed to capture three males and three females. In Forbes State Forest, with the help of state forester Cory Wentzel, they captured the largest known bird in eastern North America, a second winter female and the only young bird they caught. The other five were adults, one each in Tuscarora and Rothrock state forests, the Allegheny National Forest, and two private sites near Emporium. The male they caught in Rothrock was a recovery that had been originally caught in 2000 by other researchers as a first year bird during fall migration.

Miller and Katzner also exchange information with colleagues in Quebec province where most of our golden eagles go to nest. Most of the birds they telemetered in 2012 headed straight north toward northern Quebec and Labrador, one adult female took a trip around Quebec’s more southerly Gaspe Peninsula, and one male ended up on the south shore of the Hudson Bay in Ontario after a look around Manitoba. He was the first bird in their project to go west to the Ontario breeding range.

golden eagle on bait

golden eagle on bait at the Far Field (trail cam photo)

Late last summer my husband Bruce and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary trip by spending 15 days exploring the Gaspe Peninsula. We mostly followed the coast and saw numerous gray seals, fin whales, and, best of all, hundred of thousands of common gannets at their nesting site on Bonaventure Island. But we didn’t see a golden eagle, not one, not even when we followed Dr. Katzner’s directions to a nest site above a mountain road. High up on a heavily-forested ridge we spotted the nest site with our scope. Unfortunately, their nesting was over for the year. Still, we wondered how the Gaspe researchers had been able to find that site and others in the rugged Gaspe interior. Miller admitted that even though they had been there during the nesting season, they never saw a golden eagle either. Junior Tremblay, one of the Gaspe researchers, told me that “some of our nests were found with helicopter survey but most of them were found with the participation of local ornithologists who do huge work to scan many potential cliffs for the breeding eagles.”

In a recent paper published by members of the recently-formed Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, the researchers have discovered that Quebec has the largest number of breeding eastern golden eagles at 300 to 500 breeding pairs, most of which nest above 50 degrees North. Those nests in the far north of Quebec are built on cliffs, on the edge of but avoiding heavily forested areas. Those on the Gaspe are mostly in trees in forested habitats. However, golden eagles on the Gaspe do forage in open landscapes created by disturbances and wetlands and feed extensively on birds, particularly waterfowl and wading birds.

Birds that summer on the Gaspe mainly migrate through New England, which, before the age of DDT, also had a breeding population as did New York. Those individuals winter mainly in New York and Pennsylvania and may not be counted at raptor migration watching sites farther south. Apparently, eastern golden eagles begin migrating as early as mid-August, although most migrate from mid-October to mid-December.

So far, their telemetry and camera-trapping data suggest that golden eagles winter in greatest numbers in the north-central Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia, and on those mountains they use large blocks of forested habitat. They feed on carrion, most notably white-tailed deer.

golden eagle on bait

another shot of the eagle (see slideshow above for many more photos)

Eastern golden eagles face threats throughout their lives from a variety of sources. One is incidental captures in leg-hold traps and snares set for mammals, for instance, from 2007 to 2010 Quebec, West Virginia and Virginia reported many incidental captures and Quebec researchers suspected that many more were not reported.

Shootings, accidental or intentional, collisions with towers, power lines, buildings, and now probably with the array of industrial wind farms on their migrating mountaintop routes and in their breeding and wintering ranges, as well as poisoning are also common. Habitat loss—especially on their migration, wintering, and southern Gaspe breeding grounds—because of wind energy and natural gas extraction—is another threat, although the province of Quebec has recently banned natural gas drilling. Still, we saw numerous industrial wind farms on top of the high, rugged mountains on the Gaspe along the St. Lawrence River. And more and more such facilities have been and are continuing to be built on mountaintops in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.

But that’s why the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group—an international collaborative effort among scientists and managers from across eastern North America—has been formed. They hope, as they state in their paper in The Auk entitled “Status, Biology, and Conservation Priorities for North America’s Eastern Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) Population,” “to ensure the long-term sustainability of Eastern Golden Eagle populations, ultimately making the species a flagship species for conservation.”


Here are some more photos of other wildlife at the spruce grove bait pile (click the thumbnails for larger versions). Thanks to Paula Scott for all the great trail cam photos!


In Search of Silence

Telephone in the Hoh rainforest, by dfb on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

Telephone in the Hoh rainforest, by dfb on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

Ever since I read about Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence project, I’ve been more keenly aware of our noisy world.  Hempton, a sound ecologist, has been recording natural sounds for decades.  Nicknamed Sound Tracker for his recordings, he laments that every decade our world becomes noisier.  While city dwellers are acutely conscious of humanity’s din, even those of us who live in the country find it difficult to escape the sound of jet planes overhead, the whine of a chainsaw, the roar of an all-terrain vehicle, or the rumble of trucks and cars on nearby highways.

“Quiet is going extinct,” Hempton says. In 1998 he toured 15 states west of the Mississippi River and found only two places — remote parts of Colorado and Minnesota — that were free of human-induced noise for appreciable amounts of time. Even most of our national parks were and remain noisy.

There are no places left on earth completely free of human-created sounds, Hempton laments, and he estimates that only one-tenth of one percent of the earth’s land surface is silent for more than fifteen minutes. Traveling our country in search of one square inch where it was quiet most of the time, he found what he was listening for in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington State’s Olympic National Park where 95 percent of the land is a protected wilderness. There, on Earth Day, 2005, he dedicated the red square stone that marks his One Square Inch of Silence, according to Kathleen Dean Moore, who accompanied him to the place and wrote “Silence like Scouring Sand,” in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine.

“It’s an open glade, like the nave of a cathedral, carpeted in deep green moss and deer ferns,” she writes.  Her description reminded me of the cross-country family camping trip we took back in 1981 and our visit to the Hoh Rain Forest on July 8.  The Visitor Center was crowded, but by choosing the longer of two trails — the mere one-and-a-quarter-mile Spruce Trail — we were alone.  As I wrote in my journal, “The rainforest was beautiful with enormous Sitka spruce trees, big leaf maples, and other tree species heavily draped with 70 species of epiphytes.  Thick layers of moss clung to the tree trunks, which contributed to the awe we felt in that hushed forest.”  Afterwards, we hiked a mile along the Hoh River in a fruitless search for harlequin ducks.

Along the Hoh River Trail, by Jeff Hutchison on Flickr

Along the Hoh River Trail, by Jeff Hutchison on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license)

Reporter Douglas Gantenbein also accompanied Hempton in to his One Square Inch of Silence.  They hiked three miles from the Hoh Visitor Center and reached their destination 100 yards off the Hoh River Trail.  We must have been very close to what has become almost a sacred place for the many people who also have hiked into the area and left their comments in a small metal canister called the Jar of Quiet Thoughts.

Hempton thinks his one square inch can have an impact over 1,000 square miles, because not only does noise travel but so too does silence, and by defending his square inch he is also quieting a much larger area from thundering jets and other intruding noise.  That is the theory, at least.  Every month he sits next to the red stone and listens, and if he hears any mechanized noise, he records the date, documents the volume, and launches a complaint.  Already, one airline has changed its route, but another has not.  So even there, the roar of jet engines powering over the 7,000-foot high peaks in the Brothers Wilderness of the park is inescapable.

“It’s physically impossible for a jet to fly high enough that its engines can’t be heard on Earth,” Hempton tells Moore.  I know we hear them constantly as they crisscross our sky.  Apparently, we are on a major east/west flight path because our son Steve, flying east at 30,000 feet, reported seeing our property below. But small, low-flying, propeller planes, while much less frequent than jets, are even noisier.

We also hear traffic from Interstate 99 below our mountain, especially on clear, beautiful days and nights.  Traffic is the largest noisemaker throughout the United States in cities as well as in the country.  And here in Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, major highways and roads of all sizes are so numerous that we can never get far from one.

A truck in the forest (Rickett's Glen State Park, PA)

A truck in the forest (Rickett's Glen State Park, PA)

Luckily, because we have no close neighbors, we don’t have to contend with the constant din of gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, farm machinery, and other noisemakers that admittedly have made our lives physically easier, but often create havoc in our bodies. According to numerous studies, excessive noise damages the ears of 10 million people in our country, raises our stress levels, and can contribute to high blood pressure and even depression. While some humans try to cope by using ear plugs and protectors, soundproofing their homes, and switching to electric-powered lawn mowers or even manual ones, for many people noise equals excitement.  And they don’t mind sharing their music, loud machines, and even their shouting with the rest of us.

I never realized how noisy our world was until I spent several days in 1985 in the high Andes Mountains of Peru.  At 14,000 feet, the silence was amazing.  In places where there were people, they went quietly about their work of herding animals, spinning wool, and washing clothes.  No planes flew overhead; no cars or trucks roared past.  We heard every birdsong and the high-pitched whistles of the vicunas.

Bruce with his bulldozer

Bruce with his bulldozer. Sometimes, we are part of the problem, too.

In contrast to that, a couple years later, I accompanied a public television crew to several Pennsylvania natural places I had written about.  I remember the frustration of the sound cameraman because we had to wait many long minutes to film without the sound of traffic on nearby country roads or planes overhead.

No matter where we go in Pennsylvania, it is difficult to escape from human-induced noise.  Yet I’m convinced that is why many people take up such solitary quiet hobbies as fly fishing and archery hunting.  Others of us escape our noisy world by walking in the woods, canoeing or kayaking in quiet waters, or sitting in tree stands listening and watching for deer.  Hempton suggests that all of us who seek silence should practice hearing like a deer, something every good hunter already knows.

“Deer listen in 360 degrees,” he says and to imitate them he advises us to go into the woods alone, wear quiet clothing such as cotton or wool, place ourselves near a tree or other object that will reflect sound towards us, create an irregular shape with our bodies, so we will blend into the landscape, stick foam earplugs into our ears before we begin to listen and then take them out in order to hear softer natural sounds, and move our heads slightly every so often, like deer rotate their ears.  Moving even an inch may change how and what we hear, according to Hempton.  And so, as often as possible, when I go out in our forest, I try to find my own square inch of silence, if only for a few minutes, and listen like a deer.

Deer ears in Plummer's Hollow

Deer ears in Plummer's Hollow

On Sunday mornings, before the trains begin whistling our crossing at the base of our road, I can find perfect peace deep in our mature forest beside our stream. Listening carefully, I can hear the pitch of the stream changing as water flows over and around its rock-strewn bottom. Sitting on Turkey Bench above the stream one Indian summer day in early November it was so quiet that I could hear the crackling of leaves as they sifted down one by one in the still air.

On another fine November day, I sat in the black cherry woods with my back against a tree trunk.  A couple chipmunks discovered me and started their warning chipping call.  Another chipmunk ventured close and ducked into a nearby tree crevasse before emerging and running in the opposite direction.  Then, a ruffed grouse landed and quickly flew off again, but a few minutes later, a second grouse took off behind me. For a few minutes, I had become part of the natural landscape.

Often, I need the sounds of nature — a hard rain or thundering wind — to mask humanity’s noise.  I used to dislike the wind.  Now I embrace it, especially on early November days when it sends eastern golden eagles heading south above Sapsucker Ridge.

Fog often dampens sound, and I walk for miles through a specter-filled forest, billowing white around the black, uniquely shaped trees, and wait for the occasional deer to loom up on the trail in front of me.

A snow-covered landscape also absorbs sound.  Last November, on a cold day after a light snow, I encountered a buck 40 feet below me on the trail contemplatively chewing his cud.  He looked straight at me, but even when I slowly raised my binoculars to ascertain that he had only one tall, curved antler on either side of his head, he never moved.  We continued watching each other for several minutes before he roused himself, turned, and ran silently down the trail.  Perhaps, he too was enjoying the serenity and sunshine of the peaceful morning.

Sapsucker Ridge in a snow storm

Sapsucker Ridge in a snow storm


For more about noise pollution, The Allegheny Front, an environmental public radio program out of Pittsburgh, had a special on it during the week of 8/19/2009 — you can listen online.  The page also has links to several groups interested in noise pollution including the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse and The Right to Quiet Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection whose motto is “Hear Nature Again.”  The latter has a Noiseletter, as they whimsically call it, filled with articles on a variety of noise-related subjects, which you can read online.

Photos by Dave Bonta except where noted otherwise. Click on small photos to see larger versions.

Making Connections

Elliston Point - Atlantic PuffinOur plane dropped through the momentary hole in the clouds and made a perfect landing on the St. John’s runway. After a day’s delay, because of fog, we had finally arrived in Newfoundland. Place of my dreams, this island in the sea is halfway to Ireland. And yet here is where our beloved Appalachian Mountains begin.

Not only were we far from Pennsylvania, but we quickly discovered that we were far from the so-called modern world. We felt as if we had returned to the days of our youth before malls and fast food outlets, when motels were small and family-owned, most people were lucky to own one car, homes were neat and modest, and the world was half as crowded as it is now. Newfoundland roads follow the contours of the landscape instead of blasting through it as our interstates do, and the slower pace of life allows folks to engage in conversation as entertainment, even with foreigners like us.

However, all was not idyllic in Newfoundland. Because the cod fishery had crashed, back in the 1990s, due to overfishing by both the Newfoundlanders and foreign fishing fleets, we expected to see crushing poverty. But during our three-week visit to Newfoundland and Labrador, we saw people who make do, catching fish, hunting moose, and picking a bonanza of wild berries — blueberries, partridgeberries, raspberries, squash berries, bakeapples, blackberries, strawberries — that thrive in their bogs, barrens, and forests.

They use handmade wooden sleds to haul out the wood they cut for winter heat, leaving the sleds along the roadsides until they are needed. Garden plots, fenced and guarded by makeshift scarecrows, line the roadsides and are often far from the nearest community. The soil, tilled and enriched with kelp from the sea, yields an abundance of cold-tolerant vegetables, especially potatoes.

TrinityMost of the restaurants and motels are run by women. They spend their winters making aprons, jams, and other gift items to sell to the trickle of tourists that visit this remote province. Many of the men have left for the oil sands of Alberta where they can make a living for themselves and their families back in Newfoundland.

Even though Newfoundlanders speak English, every town has its own version of the language and, in one case, we couldn’t understand a word they said. Before roads, villages along the sea were only reachable by boat, and these outports, as they are called, were so isolated that their linguistic heritage — mostly Scottish, Irish, English, and Welsh — has retained the accent and expressions of the 17th century when their ancestors arrived in the province.

European settlement in Newfoundland dates back to the eleventh century when the Vikings built an ephemeral village on the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Centuries later, in 1497, John Cabot landed on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula and claimed the land for England. Then Sir George Calvert, First Baron of Baltimore, set up the colony of Avalon on the Avalon Peninsula in 1621 before he left for warmer climes and founded Maryland.

So what possible connections could there be between Pennsylvania and the remote province of Newfoundland and Labrador besides the Appalachians? Well, at least a few folks in the town of Arnold’s Cove are Steeler fans, or so one couple told us when we met them on the Bordeaux Trail. They also asked to take photos of us so they could prove to their town council that folks from Pennsylvania had used their trail.

Arnold’s Cove, like all the towns we visited in the province, has a scenic, well-kept trail open to the public. Many such trails include elaborate boardwalks and bridges that span wetlands and streams. The Bordeaux Trail of Arnold’s Cove, for instance, wound six miles around a series of coves at the head of Placentia Bay. It was on such trails that we traced the connections between their natural world and ours.

We arrived the last week of June. Lilacs bloomed in the dooryards and giant dandelions along the paths at Cape Spear National Historic Park, the easternmost point in North America. A constant breeze kept the dreaded north woods’ mosquitoes and black flies away, and we had, for the most part, glorious weather.

Cape St. Mary's Gannet ColonyWe saw our share of seabirds — close-ups of northern gannet, common murre, and Atlantic puffin colonies, for example. I even had a puffin stand beside me, a highlight for this puffin-lover. But of the 56 bird species we saw, 45 of them either migrate through or also live in Pennsylvania. Many of the plants and trees were the same or closely related to those from areas in the commonwealth.

However, only five of the nine mammal species we saw also live in Pennsylvania — mink, otters, red squirrels, snowshoe hares and woodchucks. But woodchucks, called “whistlers” by the locals, only inhabit Labrador, which is connected to mainland Canada through Quebec, and both red squirrels and snowshoe hares are introduced species. So too are moose, which were introduced in Newfoundland in 1904 to help feed a starving population. They have multiplied like white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania, and Newfoundlanders fill their freezers with moose meat. Mooseburgers, moose stew, and moose soup are popular items on restaurant menus. But talk to park naturalists and botanists, and you hear about how moose are devouring the understory throughout Newfoundland.

Another new species in Newfoundland arrived in 1985 by crossing the frozen Cabot Strait from Nova Scotia. Already the eastern coyote has helped to upset the balance between native caribou and lynx, their historical natural predator, at Gros Morne National Park, according to the park naturalist. In winter, coyotes hunt in family packs, like wolves, and bring down adult caribou when both species retreat to windswept areas of the park that are relatively free of ice and snow. To further complicate matters, native bald eagles, since the fish stock collapse, have been preying on baby caribou. Consequently, their herd is dwindling. In addition, most of the caribou in the Avalon herd, in southeastern Newfoundland, have died of brain worm.

Despite the overpopulation of moose, we found abundant plant life along the trails. In spruce forests and barrens, the understory of blooming Labrador tea — a Pennsylvania rare plant — sheep laurel, and rhodora reminded me of the Long Pond area in the Poconos. The Coastal Trail at Terra Nova National Park wound through a spring wildflower display of bunchberry, yellow clintonia, starflower, sarsaparilla, Canada mayflower, and absolutely gigantic pink lady’s slippers. Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), which is a Pennsylvania threatened plant, was an abundant ground cover. Pitcher plants, the province’s wildflower (like our state wildflower), bloomed in every bog.

Terra Nova - LupinesBut we were especially overwhelmed by the wild lupines that flowered in roadside ditches and abandoned fields, looking as if they had been planted. In a sense they had been. One Newfoundlander told me that lupines produce abundant seed, which they collect and scatter over open land. Here in Pennsylvania, the wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis) is listed as rare and seeing one is always a special treat.

The forests of Newfoundland and Labrador are primarily evergreen — spruce, balsam fir, white pine, larch — but deciduous trees include white birch, aspen, and red maple, a northern boreal forest. Such a forest nurtures many songbirds that are rare breeders in Pennsylvania, especially blackpoll warblers and yellow-bellied flycatchers, which sang in every spruce forest we hiked through.

But the most common singers in the forests were white-throated sparrows, and I wondered if any that I heard had spent April on our mountain. Newfoundlanders told us that their spring, like ours, had arrived two weeks later than usual, which may be why our white-throats had delayed their migration.

Other spruce forest breeders we heard or saw that breed in Pennsylvania included yellow-rumped warblers, black-and-white warblers, hermit thrushes, and northern waterthrushes.

Of the Pennsylvania songbird migrants that breed in Newfoundland and Labrador spruce forests, fox sparrows, which rarely sing when they migrate over our mountain, regaled us with song. So too did ruby-crowned kinglets, palm warblers, and Wilson’s warblers.

American robins surprised us. They were darker than the ones that breed in Pennsylvania and are a separate subspecies, Turdus migratorius nigrideus. Instead of being familiar, dooryard birds, they breed in the cool, damp, coniferous forests of all the eastern Canadian provinces.

Burnt CapeIn the more open, often windswept areas of the province, in yards and above the sea on bluffs, white-crowned sparrows sang. We heard the protesting calls before we saw breeding spotted sandpipers in the wetland along the Bordeaux Trail in Arnold’s Cove. Greater yellowlegs were common shorebirds; ring-necked ducks and common loons bred on inland lakes. While we sat on an open, grassy area across from a rocky, grassy sea stack of nesting Atlantic puffins, Savannah sparrows serenaded us. Greater black-backed gulls and herring gulls continually harried the puffin colony. Double-crested cormorants nested on an island beyond that colony. On a rocky islet nearby a greater black-backed, gull chick stood next to its parent. Horned larks bred on the open headlands of Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve. This reserve, near the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, is also a botanical treasure with over 300 plant species, 35 of which are rare or endangered. And, we were told by our guide, botanists from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences have been studying them since the 1930s.

During our 200-mile drive on a gravel road in Labrador, past bogs, forests, and lakes, we spotted a pair of rough-legged hawks on top of a rocky precipice. Usually these are birds that we see in Pennsylvania only in winter. Other winter visitors we saw that rarely make an appearance in our state were pine siskins, white-winged crossbills, and pine grosbeaks.

Our first pine grosbeaks were hopping around on a parking lot in Pistolet Bay Provincial Park near Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve. While we were waiting for our guide to the reserve, three pine grosbeaks — two males and one female — landed on the ground next to us. I couldn’t believe how tame they were. They seemed to frequent such places because we next saw them under a wooden staircase leading down to a beach and again they acted as if we weren’t there. These were my first pine grosbeaks, and I was thrilled by the sightings. I was also excited to see another first — white-winged crossbills — at the Botanical Garden of Memorial University in St. John’s.

Bonavista Bay with icebergAll through our trip, we mixed the familiar with the unfamiliar — birds, mammals, plants –a nd we counted icebergs off the coast — hundreds and hundreds of all shapes and sizes. On our ferry trip along the coast of Labrador the ferry skillfully threaded its way through them during the foggy night and I remembered the Titanic. Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans seemed as awed by them as we were. They hadn’t seen so many icebergs in decades.

What do icebergs have to do with Pennsylvania?

We were seeing parts of the Greenland ice sheet, which is melting at an unprecedented rate because of global warming. The icebergs were a constant reminder to us that we are all connected in this wondrous world and that we ignore such warnings about our warming climate at our peril, and the peril of generations to come.


Newfoundland Photos by Bruce Bonta
(click thumbnails to go to file pages, then click again to view at full size)

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.