March almost always comes in like a lion and often goes out like one as well. Last March was particularly brutal and windy with temperatures as low as seven degrees. An icy snow covered the ground and inch-a-half snows alternated with blue-skied deep winter days throughout most of the month.
Despite the spring songs of our resident song sparrows, tufted titmice, and black-capped chickadees, there were no migrants until it warmed up on March 14. Then the first flock of tundra swans flew over our mountain heading northwest to their nesting grounds in the Canadian and Alaskan tundra.
That same day I heard the first down-slurring whistle of a singing field sparrow and a “cheep” from a chipmunk as I walked down our hollow road. By mid-afternoon it was 62 degrees on the veranda and I sat outside to bask in the welcome warmth.
The following day it was 52 degrees at dawn and overcast but warm enough to entice a bevy of birds back from their winter homes. A flock of American robins, returned from warmer climes farther south, landed on our front lawn in early morning and our son, Dave, reported seeing the first turkey vultures flying above Sapsucker Ridge.
As I walked Butterfly Loop around First Field later in the morning, I was accompanied by the singing of the field sparrow. I also heard a barred owl calling from Sapsucker Ridge. Although the owl is a permanent mountain resident, the brown creeper I spotted on a small black locust tree was on its way to breeding grounds perhaps in northern Pennsylvania, New York, New England, or even to Canada from Newfoundland west to northern Saskatchewan.
Next I spotted a male American bluebird perched high in a tree. He had not wintered on our mountain but perhaps down in the valleys on either side of us or maybe farther south during the worst of the winter weather. His sky-blue back, head, tail and wings were a colorful contrast to the mostly brown and black of other returning birds.
I climbed up Big Tree Trail as a single mourning dove sang his sorrowful-sounding “coo-coo-coo.” He was one of several doves that had been at our bird-feeding area eating cracked corn throughout the winter months.
When I reached the top of Sapsucker Ridge, I heard the cry of a killdeer as it flew toward the valley where they nest. These brown plovers with their pair of black breast bands across their white breasts call their names and are commonly seen loudly defending their ground nests on open fields. It could have come from as far south as Mexico or Central America since killdeer are known as leap-frog migrants because they leave their northern breeding grounds where the winters are severe and fly south over the southern United States where other killdeer live throughout the year.
The sun shone through the cloud cover when I reached Big Tree Trail bench. I sat to rest surrounded by huge red oak trees including the largest on our property. It was there I saw my first turkey vulture of the year floating silently past.
Had I lived in Hinckley, Ohio, on March 15, I would have been participating in their annual Return of the Buzzards celebration at Buzzard Roost—a large open field surrounded by trees—where the official Buzzard Spotter watches the first turkey vulture return to its roost site. The Ohio turkey vultures, like ours, can stay father south or east in Pennsylvania or anywhere from the New Jersey coast to central Florida in large vulture roosts during the winter.
I continued my walk along Sapsucker Ridge Trail and noticed a pair of turkey vultures perched on top of the large, curved branch of a red oak sitting a foot apart like an old married couple, which they probably were. Turkey vultures mate for life but spend their winters apart, reuniting at or near their old nesting areas every spring.
Both the vultures faced me so I could see their colorful red heads and red and gold curved beaks. The sun appeared fully for a few minutes and first one and then the other spread their wings and tail, the white undersides of their tails shining in the sunlight, but every time the sun went behind the clouds they closed their wings. Then they turned their left sides toward me as they lined up on the branch one behind the other. Finally, the lead bird flew off, closely followed by the second one, most likely headed for one of the talus slopes on Sapsucker Ridge where they could find a safe place on the rock ledges to raise their family.
Farther along the trail, I heard and then saw a robin fly off. By the time I reached Paula’s Bench overlooking a still snow-covered forest floor as it dipped toward the north, the sun was shining brightly. Then a red-tailed hawk swooped in and landed on a nearby tree. I strained for a view of it behind tree branches and wondered if it was a returning red-tail or the one that had wintered here. Every year a pair nests near the end of Sapsucker Ridge and usually we see at least a portion of their courtship flights over First Field.
Eventually, I descended Sapsucker Ridge and merged on to First Field. That’s when I saw an adult bald eagle, his white head and neck shining in the sun, flying across the field from Laurel Ridge to Sapsucker Ridge. No doubt he was a local bald eagle, which still seems miraculous to me, since I remember the years when the last few bald eagles left in Pennsylvania were in the northwest. The bald eagles’ eggshells had been thinning and breaking for decades due to organochlorine pesticides. Only when the pesticides were banned did those raptors and others slowly recover and increase their numbers.
I spotted the last raptor of the day at lunch time when I looked out our kitchen window in time to see the blue-gray wings of a male American kestrel as he landed on our electric line near the barn. Unlike the other raptors I heard and saw that day—turkey vultures, red-tailed hawk, barred owl, and bald eagle—all of which are thriving, the robin-sized American kestrel is declining.
Here in Pennsylvania this smallest of North American falcons has declined 17% between our first and second breeding bird atlasing periods. Some ornithologists have found the remains of kestrels in the nests of Cooper’s hawks, which may mean that kestrels could be victims of what some raptor ecologists call “intraguild predation” when small raptors are eaten by large raptors. Certainly, that looks like one factor affecting the kestrels in Pennsylvania according to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary studies.
West Nile virus, which has been in Pennsylvania since 1999, has affected many bird species including kestrels. For instance, at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, 95% of American kestrels breeding in the Sanctuary’s nest boxes have tested positive for West Nile virus. Other possibilities include the decline of insect populations and/or extreme weather conditions especially during migration. Habitat loss due to increasing urbanization in both the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, which is using up more and more of the farm fields surrounded by trees that kestrels favor, may also be affecting them.
Scientists and volunteers interested in the welfare of these amazing little raptors, including those at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, have launched studies on all fronts and will probably discover, as with most problems in the natural world, that there are many mitigating factors.
Even though I have found no evidence of kestrels nesting on our mountain for many years, we have occasional male and female kestrels sitting on our utility lines and diving after insects and small rodents in our First Field as the little male was doing that first true day of spring.
But for the rest of the month, the only other returning migrants were eastern phoebes and a male eastern towhee. Most of the days were cold and blustery and March did go out like a slightly less fierce lion.