Category Archives: spring arrivals

2008 International Migratory Bird Day

indigo bunting in the rainIt was 46 degrees and raining when I awoke at 6:00 a.m., but the birds sang anyway, especially the two male Baltimore orioles competing for a female in our yard. I managed to count 19 species from our veranda and front porch before breakfast, including an eastern kingbird that had first appeared at the edge of First Field on Thursday. Later in the morning, carrying an umbrella, trying to protect my binoculars from the rain, keeping my feet dry, and staying warm, all while counting birds, was no fun. However, I added 15 more species to my list, including many singing indigo buntings in the field and wood thrushes in the woods. Worm-eating warblers, ovenbirds, black-throated green warblers, hooded warblers and even a black-throated blue warbler also sang. About the only birds I saw were those in the fields. The rest I counted by ear.

After a rest and a change into dry clothes and boots, I went more happily out in the sunny afternoon. Down our road I walked to get Acadian flycatchers and common grackles. Then I climbed up to the former clearcut where I hit the jackpot — a migratory flock of warblers that included many American redstarts. I also heard both a cerulean warbler and a northern parula. By the time I reached home, at 5:30 p.m., I had 55 species — a respectable total for a solo performance. Then, after dinner, I looked at my mertensia patch for a ruby-throated hummingbird and there he was. And, right on schedule, our resident whippoorwill called outside at 8:45 p.m. As usual, the eastern towhees (13) and red-eyed vireos (12) were the most abundant species or at least singers. Hooded warblers won the warbler contest at eight, closely followed by American redstart (7). Wood thrushes (8) scarlet tanagers (8) and indigo buntings (7) also made a good showing, and I did have many wonderful sightings of the tanagers and buntings.

© Marcia Bonta

Compare last year’s IMBD report.


Spring is here (more or less)

I heard tundra swans high overhead first thing this morning — our first of the year. Later in the morning , high, north-bound Vs of Canada geese were presumed to be migrants, as well. Steve saw a ring-billed gull fly over the hollow, too.

Our first spring arrival — meaning the earliest sighting of something included in our Spring Arrivals and Blooming Dates list — was a turkey vulture that soared right over the house around 12:45 p.m. on February 19. That’s just one day later than our earliest-ever TV, February 18, back in 1991.

A lot of people speak of the equinoxes and solstices as the “official” beginnings of the seasons whose names they bear, but this is nonsense: seasons are purely cultural constructs. The length and number of seasons can vary considerably depending on latitude and microclimate. Many parts of the world only have two seasons, for example — a wet season and a dry season. Moreover, several years ago, I heard one of the Penn State weather gurus on the local public radio station opine that, for our area, based on average temperatures and other indicators, the first day of the month in which an equinox or solstice occurs is generally pretty close to the true beginning of the season. So if I want to believe that the tundra swans’ fluting calls signaled the arrival of spring this morning, who’s to say I’m wrong?

The high today was around 55°F, depending on which thermometer you believe. True, our deepest snowfall of the year — some eight inches — was just two days ago. And if recent years are any guide, we can expect another couple of snows at least before the month is over. But those will be spring snows. The swans have spoken.


Counting Birds

The last of our breeding birds, wood pewee and indigo bunting, returned to the mountain just in time for International Migratory Bird Day on May 12. Most of the counting this year was done by Marcia, as she recounts on her blog, with help from some of our hunter friends, who were on the mountain very early in pursuit of spring gobblers. A one-day count may not fully capture the species richness here — we know we missed the nesting sharp-shinned hawks, for example — but it gives a pretty good idea of the birds’ relative abundance. The commonest birds on the mountain appear to be red-eyed vireo (20), scarlet tanager (17), eastern towhee (15), ovenbird (13), black-throated green warbler (13), and wood thrush (11). These numbers represent, if anything, an increase from past years, and lend credence to the claims of ornithologists that threatened birds such as scarlet tanagers and wood thrushes would do fine if given sufficient unfragmented forest habitat. Marcia also logged a golden-winged warbler at the edge of Sapsucker Ridge, a species in precipitous decline due to a lack of shrubland habitat and to competition and hybridization with the closely related blue-winged warbler, whose range is expanding northward, possibly as a consequence of global warming.

1. mallard–1
2. ruffed grouse–5
3. wild turkey–7
4. great blue heron–1
5. turkey vulture–3
6. red-tailed hawk–1
7. killdeer–1
8. mourning dove–3
9. yellow-billed cuckoo–8
10. whip-poor-will–2
11. ruby-throated hummingbird–1
12. red-bellied woodpecker–1
13. downy woodpecker–1
14. northern flicker–2
15. pileated woodpecker–2
16. eastern wood-pewee–4
17. Acadian flycatcher–4
18. eastern phoebe–2
19. great-crested flycatcher–6
20. blue-headed vireo–4
21. red-eyed vireo–20
22. blue jay–8
23. American crow–4
24. common raven–1
25. black-capped chickadee–4
26. tufted titmouse–6
27. white-breasted nuthatch–1
28. blue-gray gnatcatcher–2
29. wood thrush–11
30. American robin–2
31. gray catbird–2
32. golden-winged warbler–1
33. black-throated blue warbler–2
34. yellow-rumped warbler–2
35. black-throated green warbler–13
36. blackburnian warbler–1
37. bay-breasted warbler–1
38. black-and-white warbler–9
39. American redstart–8
40. worm-eating warbler–8
41. ovenbird–13
42. Louisiana waterthrush–1
43. common yellowthroat–7
44. hooded warbler–5
45. scarlet tanager–17
46. eastern towhee–15
47. chipping sparrow–3
48. field sparrow–4
49. song sparrow–3
50. northern cardinal–4
51. rose-breasted grosbeak–7
52. indigo bunting–6
53. common grackle–4
54. brown-headed cowbird–5
55. Baltimore oriole–2
56. American goldfinch–5

Spring wildflowers: back on track

trillium 1The perennial wildflowers and shrubs are doing fine despite the prolonged cold snap in April. On April 18th I counted hepaticas and found 149 blossoms on 60 plants at five different locations on the road bank – the only place they seem to occur in the hollow. By the 24th, the shadbush was in full bloom, though it’s not a great year for them, and purple trillium started blooming.

On the 25th, sweet white violets were blooming on Ten Springs Trail, and along the road, even more trilliums were out. Unbelievable how quickly they grow after just a few days of warmth! Long-spurred violets were also in bloom. Sarsaparilla, Solomon’s seal, Solomon’s plume, yellow mandarin, Canada mayflower, red elderberry, etc. have all fully emerged, although none are flowering yet. Round-leaved yellow violets blossomed on the old charcoal mound at the fourth pull-off. I walked farther above the road bank to see if wildflowers were spreading uphill. Solomon’s plume was. I also found a clutch of at least 20 maple-leaved viburnums. Canada mayflowers also were spreading up the mountain.

On April 28th, descending Pit Mound Trail and then following along the stream, I noticed that Solomon’s seal and yellow mandarin were expanding up-slope. At the big tulip tree stump, a bevy of round-leaved violets bloomed and mitrewort along the stream was in bud and spreading. Many small red elderberry shrubs had sprouted and among a clump of wild oats or sessile bellwort, I found the first blossom.

The following day, down near the bottom of the hollow, I noticed that the steep slope of Laurel Ridge was carpeted in the new green of Canada mayflower leaves as far as I could see, convincing me that the ground cover here would be the same as it was on our farm in central Maine back in the 60s if the deer numbers were controlled. The same would be true in the wooded side of Sapsucker Ridge because in the first side-hollow, where the woods was spared by the recent logging, even where the hurricane took out trees, Canada mayflower leaves spread. But I found none beside Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails where the forest had been so badly logged.

Other wildflowers are also spreading despite the depressing encroachment of the invasive garlic mustard. The first yellow mandarin flowered. Many wild hydrangeas were leafing out on either side of the road. I saw more maple-leaved viburnums on the bank before the dark place where, unbelievably, some hepaticas were still blooming. Surely the expansion of so many native shrubs and wildflowers in the hollow testifies to the relative success of our 15-year-old deer hunting program.

© Marcia Bonta


The cold snap that hit in the first week of April was apparently hard on frogs throughout our area. At our local Audubon chapter’s annual spring banquet, several people told me that the wood frogs had been interrupted in their mating by the cold, and some were heard calling again late in the month, with the return of warmer temperatures. Somewhat more ominous was a report from Center County that I read on a listserve: folks on a wildflower walk along Spring Creek found a pond with many dead bullfrogs, which they thought might have all been killed by the cold.

I’ve already mentioned our own angst about our declining wood frog population here in Plummer’s Hollow over the past decade. On the other hand, however, we have more spring peepers calling this year than we’ve heard in at least twenty years. Back in the 70s, I remember hearing quite a lot of them — my bedroom window faced toward the boggy corner of the field where they tend to congregate. But then in the 80s the population crashed for some reason, and for a bunch of years we didn’t hear any. Then we started hearing one, lone peeper. The next year, two. Now we seem to be up to at least half a dozen, and it sounds like a regular chorus again.


The coldest April

Spring has stood still for almost two weeks. Today I heard and saw all the same birds that I heard and saw last week and the week before along Greenbrier Trail, down the road and around the house and field.

The stream runneth over, and that precious commodity–water–still graces our property in abundance. The coldest April on record, so they say, and spring remains as elusive as ever. Sitting on Waterthrush Bench, I heard a scolding Louisiana waterthrush, but he refused to sing. Who can blame him? The purple trillium had broken ground, and many hepatica buds were just waiting for a little sunlight to open.

All the sparrow species are still here– fox, tree, chipping, field, song, swamp, white-throated, and junco. The swamp sparrow is incredibly feisty and fights off other species.

© Marcia Bonta

Our eyes are on the sparrows

swamp sparrowThe recent cold snap that began two days ago followed several days of warmth that had brought out daffodils, trailing arbutus (as mentioned in the previous post), spicebush, and the first hepatica. None of these flowers should be damaged by a freeze. And Steve spotted another major new spring arrival in the hollow, the Louisiana waterthrush: right on schedule. The cold may have had the effect of bottling up some migrants, though. Swamp sparrows often show up here on migration, touching down briefly in the boggy corner of the field, but this is the first we’ve ever had one at the birdfeeding area below the back porch of the main house (photo). It has been spending much of its time there for the past three days. At least one tree sparrow is still coming, too, along with a fox sparrow — both species that should have been on their way north by now. The latter has even been singing from time to time — a rare treat. At the same time, the field sparrows and chipping sparrows have come back from their winter homes in the south. Rounding out the roster are song sparrows, slate-colored juncos* and white-throated sparrows, for a total of eight sparrow species at one time.

*Currently classed as a form or subspecies of the dark-eyed junco. I refuse to change my usage of common names every time the American Ornithological Union changes a classification; that’s what Latin names are for. As far as I am concerned, the solitary vireo is still the solitary vireo, the Baltimore oriole never stopped being the Baltimore oriole, and unless you’re a life-lister or a taxonomist you have no reason to care about any of this.