From December through the first week of February I have the incredible opportunity to visit with kindergarten classes all over the region and share my love of birds with them. We discuss what makes birds special, using study skins and feathers. At the end of our visit we make bird feeders for the children to take home with them. During the program we talk about the birds most likely to visit the feeders we make with them, and that some of them are not interested in the food we put in the feeder but the birds that are attracted to the food. We have a beautifully mounted adult Cooper’s hawk and show them the adaptations it has to capture and eat other birds.
On the very last day of programs my colleague Karen went off to talk with the teacher that organized our visits while I carried the stuff that we use out to the car. It was an incredibly warm day for early February and the crabapple trees were full of robins, cedar waxwings and starlings. As I sat waiting in the car all of the birds took to flight. I scanned as much of the sky as I could from behind the steering wheel but never saw what had caused the ruckus. A few moments later I was beginning to nod off when I was startled by Karen knocking on the driver’s side window. “Come on,” she motioned, “you have to see this.”
She led me back inside to a large window over- looking the paved play ground as she excitedly said “there’s a Cooper’s hawk eating a bird on the fence.” I approached the window and strained to look across the way at the fence line but couldn’t see anything. “No,” she said “right there.” And I saw it, not 10 feet from the window, on top of a chain-link fence, an immature Cooper’s hawk ravenously eating a songbird. It had been at it for several minutes by the time I got there making the identification of the hawk’s lunch difficult.
It was the end of the school day and the 2 classes we had visited that day passed on their way to the buses. The teacher’s had their students get ready early and took them outside to watch the drama taking place outside. One of them commented on how sad it was while another said that we all have to eat.
My fears that the hawk would get distracted by the students and abandon its meal, were unfounded as it continued to eat with 40 kindergarteners a mere 20 feet away. Karen and I continued to observe from the window, as the hawk downed everything edible on that bird, including both legs, which was almost painful to watch. When there was nothing left but a few feathers clinging to its toes the Cooper’s hawk cleaned his talons and beak on the fence before taking flight.
We went outside and joined the students just before they left for the waiting buses. I picked up some feathers that had begun drifting in the light breeze. They were predominantly gray with orange-red tips and I realized that the Cooper’s hawk had dined on an American Robin. I shared this knowledge with the students and they all thought that it was one of the coolest things they had ever seen. As someone ten times older than they are I had to agree.
There is something a little disheartening about the cold, bleak sunless days of winter. I am convinced that the word “dismay” was derived to describe this time of year. During these days, the heart of winter, the leaden skies of January and February can be cold, snowless and gray – dismay - or the absolute antithesis of May. These sullen days can lead to equally sullen moods. SO how to go about combating the midwinter blues? For me and Jackie it’s by doing the same thing we’ll be doing in May, by going birding.
In fact some of my fondest recent birding memories are in the dead of winter. Interesting turn of phrase – dead of winter – because you know there’s a lot of life being lived. On a mild January afternoon we stood on the banks of the Bushkill Creek and watched as 3 pairs of hooded mergansers, bandied about. The males were engaged in the most delightful courtship posturing. Their heads, with crests fully raised, would pop up and down in a jerky fashion. Then the mergansers would throw their heads straight back and slowly bring them forward. From a distance it appeared as if their bills were vibrating. Jackie and I agreed that they must be making some type of sound while doing that. We kept getting closer until we could hear the low guttural growl they made. This behavior continued for more than 20 minutes. For their part the females seemed uninterested and kept diving.
Just this past Sunday, we went on a walk at the Dorflinger Wildlife Sanctuary in White Mills, PA. When we stepped out of our vehicle we were greeted by a dozen bluebirds. The lighting conditions were perfect to show off the deep azure blue of the males. Not only were they out and about, they were singing robust songs.
No, I can’t think of any better way to beat the winter blues than singing bluebirds and dancing mergansers in January.
Wow what a year; 2015 had a little bit of everything including a few changes. Jordan went off to college at Temple University followed in the fall by Jacob who is attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, making Jackie and I empty nesters for the first time in a score of years. Although we miss them dearly we could not be any prouder of what they have accomplished in their lives. The bittersweet changes we’ve faced in our personal lives though have been a boon for the research center.
The boys going off to college gave us the perfect opportunity to move all of Project Owlnet to the Kettle Creek Wildlife Sanctuary in Bartonsville, PA. Not only did this allow us to finally document these incredibly cute owls at Kettle Creek but it gave us a fabulous facility for doing programs. Given the natural connection between bird banding and the mission of the Kettle Creek Environmental Education Center we made application for Kettle Creek to become a Bird Banding Station meaning the permit would stay with Kettle Creek even after we’re gone. Are there saw-whet owls at Kettle Creek? – Oh yeah, we encountered 67 individuals and 1 screech owl.
As we look forward to what lies ahead in 2016 the horizon is bright. Many of our long term projects have asked us to delve deeper into the intricate interactions at play between birds and their habitats. We have taken a closer look at the lives of gray catbirds and their use of invasive species. For this work Bekah Snyder and Jackie will be working with the East Stroudsburg University DNA lab. We’ve also taken a preliminary look at all the years of eye color data we’ve collected on the owls we’ve banded and see that there may indeed be some correlations, even if they weren’t the ones we expected. In addition to all of the fun scientific work we’ll be doing is the prospect of meeting new and interesting people along the way. Yes, as we start down the trail of our 16th year there is a bounce in our step.
It has been a rather unusual fall here in the Poconos. It has affected all aspects of my community’s familiar routines, including the first time cancelations of the annual Halloween Parade and project owlnet. Although we were unable to get into the woods to conduct our annual saw-whet owl banding we kept our commitments to the Barrett Friendly Community Center and led a few Saturday morning bird walks. It was during the latest of these walks that reaffirmed my love of birding.
The BFCC is located in the old library building built in the 1920’s across route 191 from the Mountainhome Methodist Church. Behind the library is a cemetery. Our Saturday morning walks begin at the community center and amble leisurely through the cemetery.
Jackie and I begin each walk with a short discussion on binoculars and field guides. We bring binoculars for those who may need them and share our experience on how to locate birds and get them in the binoculars field of view. This past Saturday we were joined by 6 people who had rarely if ever taken the time to do any birding, but they were eager to find out more about it and we were happy to oblige. With the foliage down from most of the trees it should be easier to find birds in the mature old trees of the cemetery.
Nuthatches were the early hit of the group as they made their way up and down the tree trunks, yank-yanking all the way. The high pitched ascending call of the goldfinches caught our attention and the dazzling blue plumage of the jay against the dark green spruce was breath taking but all were outdone by the ravens.
We had just gotten to the farthest corner of the cemetery when Jackie said “look up.” There against the crisp blue autumnal sky were 2 large black birds soaring. It was obvious they were together as a pair. They alternated between soaring in unison and deliberately cutting each other off when one of the group remarked that it looked as though they were playing. I recounted our time at the Grand Canyon and the fun we had with the ravens out west.
The return of the Osprey and bald Eagle are well documented and rejoiced. We can rightfully take pride in humanities efforts to stave off extinction for these glorious birds but for me the return of the ravens is even more dramatic. There was no massive effort by federal, state and nonprofit groups to ensure their survival and yet here they are. It was not that long ago that the sighting of a raven in the Poconos was a rarity. Now they can be seen by a small group of friends behind the Barrett Friendly Community Center. It is mornings like this, sharing an intimate experience with a pair of ravens that make me glad to be a birder.
Our fifteenth season of MAPS (monitoring avian productivity and survivorship) is well underway and it is as exciting as the first day we ventured onto the Kettle Creek Wildlife Sanctuary in May of 2000. Back then our sons Jordan and Jacob were as integral a part of experience for me and Jackie as the birds. Sounds crazy, I know, but having just returned from our 2 year adventure birding across America with them- we couldn’t image doing it without the boys. When we started that trip they were just 3 and 1 years old, last week Jordan graduated from High School, while his brother played in the band. Next year is Jake’s turn to get his diploma.
As the boys grew older it became less and less practical to bring them with us as we conducted our research. They are young men now and have their own interests and we’re proud of them. In fact it has been quite a while since either of them got out of bed an hour or so before dawn to join us at a MAPS station. Hey they’re teenagers! That’s what made last Friday such an exciting day for me. Not only would we band a charismatic bird species for the first time at any of our MAPS stations, and the boys were there to share it with us.
Many of these missives I write for the website chronicle the serendipitous nature of the birding experience. They either comment on an unexpected sighting while looking for something else or take place in our yard. Not often are they recollections of what’s occurred during our field work with birds. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve noticed it. So this month I’ve got a doosey of a tale that takes place in period number seven of our fifteenth season of MAPS at the Kettle Creek Wildlife Sanctuary. It even has a bit of serendipity, which is word I just like writing.
I arrived at Kettle Creek Wildlife Sanctuary alone, on time, and opened the nets at 5:30 am. Jordan is spending the summer as a member of the Conservation District’s work crew, which means he didn’t need to get to Kettle Creek until 8:30, so that’s when Jackie came. She had Jacob with her so he could go to the DMV and get his learner’s permit.
The morning got off to a wonderful start when I banded a male indigo bunting. When Jackie arrived with Jacob it was a treat. Jordan was inside with the work crew but at least Jake was back out at the banding station with us. Sometimes I like being alone while running a station but on this day I was delighted to be in the company of my family.
Jackie joined me for the next net check and we reminisced about MAPS seasons past and banding with the boys. Each station has its own personality, nets that are highly productive and those that are not. It adds excitement to the day when a net that stays devoid of birds all day catches one or two. There are also birds that are recorded breeding at a sight every year but always seem to avoid getting banded.
We had hardly started our rounds when there was a catbird in net #2. This was not a surprise. The catbird is the most commonly banded bird at Kettle Creek and net #2 one of the most productive nets. About the only astonishing thing about this is that there are any adult catbirds left at Kettle Creek that haven’t been banded. When we passed net #7 without any more birds I figured we wouldn’t get any others on this run. Net #8 is one of the least productive nets at Kettle Creek.
Net #8 is out in the open, under a canopy of deciduous trees and a witch hazel understory. In the past fifteen years there has been an occasional red-eyed vireo in the net, but for the most part we just pass it by. But it was not empty on the 8:50 am check today. About twenty meters from the net I stopped dead in my tracks and made some kind of sound that startled Jackie (who must not have noticed the net yet) because in the very top pocket of net #8 was something big!
My first thought was that we had caught a raptor of some sort, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk; a predator that had been chasing after something else and found the net instead. As we got closer the bird's identity became clear – a pileated woodpecker. The pileated is the largest woodpecker in North America (now that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct) and a bird that has avoided being netted at any of our banding stations over the last fifteen years.
When we got back to the banding station I went inside to tell the staff. Almost everyone joined us as we banded this impressive bird, including the work crew. Through our banding effort we discovered that it was a third year female. After collecting the data we needed I held her up for the group to take pictures. She took this opportunity to get a few good hammer strokes with her formidable beak on my hand. Needless to say the photography session didn’t last long and she was released to rejoin her family.
As I look at the pictures taken that day one of my favorites is a shot of Jacob holding the bird as we ready everything else for banding. It caused quite a stir around the office and I was glad to share it with all of them but most of all - I got to share it with the boys.
We have logged many hours in pursuit of building our knowledge of the breeding birds here in the Poconos. There have been many memorable experiences and some remarkable birds. Of all those experiences this one was best. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the old proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush.” We’ll on this day a bird in the hand was worth a live affirming family experience.
Perhaps in the next fifteen years my sons will bring theirchildren to visit the banding station and I’ll get the thrill of not only sharing my love of birds with them, but tell them the story of the pileated woodpecker.
Memorial Day 2014 has come and gone. The traditional start of the summer season also marks the end of the most eagerly anticipated time of year for most birders – spring migration. It creeps up so slowly with the passage of waterfowl in March and the return of sparrows like the eastern towhee. This gaudy sparrow seizes our attention in early April. They are joined by tree swallows, phoebes, bluebirds and robins all looking for just the right spot to raise a family in our yards. As April advances, so does our anticipation, and adrenaline. Any day now... yep... any day now.
And then it’s upon us in earnest, the warblers, thrushes, orioles, vireos, grosbeaks, cuckoos and tanagers are everywhere. At times it seems that there is so much activity we can’t catch our breath. A chip, a trill, a twitter, and a rustle of leaves lead us farther and farther down the trail. Might it be something rare? The possibilities are boundless during migration. Your desire to find out, to see, to comprehend gets the best of you. You 'pish' heartedly, at the sound you hear emanating from the trees and thickets: catbirds, red-eyed vireos and common yellowthroats jump up almost instantaneously. But there’s more in that bramble patch and you pish some more, louder, longer, with as much gusto as you can muster you pishshshshshhshshshshsh, pishshshshshshshshsh, pishshshshshshshsh, and then you see it – a Kentucky warbler, a bit out of its range but not entirely unheard of, pishshshshshshshsh, pishshshshshshshshsh, Wilson’s warbler, a mourning warbler and a white-eyed vireo. Yes the opportunities are boundless.
At times you pish so earnestly you’re on the verge of hyperventilating but so you stop and take a tally of what’s been drawn in so far. Either that or you pish in vain, unable to attract anything but the catbird and vireo and the target of your initial pish has moved deeper into the brush or canopy. Sometimes the birds go quiet and you wonder, now and again (even sometimes aloud) with a group, if perhaps you haven’t just 'pish'ed it off. Not to worry there are more birds to find and habitats to scour while the migration rages around you.
Eventually the migration passes. Those birds racing to the boreal forests of Canada are gone and the ones staying to breed have established their territory and begun to get busy with the task at hand, the purpose for all that raucous activity, breeding.
On Memorial Day, Jackie and I led a walk with our friend Frank May for the Buck Hill Conservation Foundation on the Maple Swamp Trail at Buck Hill. Although we had seen and heard some of the most exquisite breeding birds of the Poconos-- black-throated blue, chestnut-sided and hooded warblers-- the highlight of the day, for me, was watching two red-eyed vireos tearing apart the silky nest of tent caterpillars as materials to build their own nest.
The migration is over. Jackie and I have just enough time to catch our breath in preparation for our fifteenth season of MAPS.
2014 was without doubt one of the hardest winters to hit the northeast in a long, long time. This translated into one of the most challenging maple sugar seasons anyone at Kettle Creek could remember. As with any annual activity we engage in on a regular basis that lasts more than a day we recognize mile posts, events, that let us know that time is passing and the end is near. As a group of naturalists ours are of course bird related.
Early March means skeins of snow geese early in the morning, high above the sugar bush. I remember days when thousands pass in undulating waves rather than tight V formations we’re used to seeing in pictures. It is one of the most awesome spectacles of late winter and I’m amazed not just at the sheer numbers of birds comprising these flocks but by the sound they produce. Each individual bird is not much more than a speck in the sky and yet the combined volume of their unceasing honking is clearly audible through the bare branches of the forest canopy. How long will they continue to vocalize? Do they ever just get down to flying without shouting at each other? When the geese fly high we’re entering the heart of the maple sugar season.
A week or so after the geese have passed the American woodcock shows up, bobbing in the wetlands along the little stream that winds its way through the sugar bush. We’ll flush them while traipsing from tree to tree collecting sap. They are so incredibly comical with their ridiculously long beaks, big eyes, stout bodies and short legs. A member of the sandpiper family they have given up on the shore and taken to the forest, but like most shorebirds they find it hard to stand still. So as we schlep our buckets through bottom land along the creek they flush fly only a few feet and then land again, bobbing uncontrollably as they come back to earth. But if they really feel threatened their greatest defense is camouflage. The timberdoodle, as the woodcock is sometimes called, arrives after a few warm days and moves on, not staying to see the season end.
The bird that signals the end of the maple sugar season for us is the eastern phoebe. Phoebes have a propensity for building their nests on man-made structures: barns, garages, houses, bridges, environmental education centers and sugar shacks. Legend has it that an eastern phoebe was the first bird ever banded by John James Audubon himself. He was curious if the phoebes that nested at Mill Grove were the same birds every year so he tied a little silver strand to their legs. When the phoebes return to the sugar bush the end is near.
This year though everything was later than usual due to the extremely cold weather, except the unexpected. We were out one morning in the cold collecting sap and a new voice chimed in, one we weren’t waiting on and so excited us even more. I wasn’t sure at first that I heard what I heard and so is stopped dead in my tracks. And then I heard it again – the clear three note followed by a weaker jumble of warbled notes – a Louisiana waterthrush! A small member of the wood warbler family just returned from tropics. They are one of the first Neotropical migrants to return and the first to leave.
I can imagine the tales we’ll tell in future years out at the sugar bush about the 2014 season. How we had to actually use the snowshoes and the bitter cold days. How the snow geese were late and the woodcock never showed up at all. But most of all well regale our visitors with how the boisterous song of the Louisiana Waterthrush heralded the end of the season and the unstoppable march to spring, and with it a contented sigh, the long, long winter is done.
The Fox Sparrow Says So
It is a long standing joke in colder climes that there are only 2 seasons. In the Poconos the location of choice for this saying is usually the Borough of Mount Pocono, but you can insert your own village name if you’ve heard it before. The joke was usually spoken by folks from either the Lehigh Valley (Allentown area) or the Wyoming Valley (Scranton area), and it goes like this: “There are only 2 seasons in Mount Pocono, winter and the 4th of July.” I am hoping dearly that this isn’t the year that old joke holds true.
Given the winter of 2014 to date, it is easy to get pessimistic about future weather conditions. We have been buffeted with brutal cold, high winds and deep snow. I’ve lived in the Poconos for most of my life and I do not remember a winter like this. One of my favorite late winter activities since becoming an environmental educator with the Monroe County Conservation District’s EE Center has been maple sugaring at the Meesing Nature Center. Historically mid March would be the end of the season, but not this year. The cold has kept sap flow to a minimum. When we have had a couple of days above freezing, the sap that does flow, freezes when the thermometer plummets into the single digits again.
Jackie and I love winter. Unlike most of our friends who envision a life down south after retirement we’re thinking of a cabin in the Catskills, but even we are longing for spring. While our neighbors fret that spring is late we know that it’s closer than it feels because the birds tell us so. While my brother couldn’t believe that there were robins in January we birders know that there are species that follow the rising and setting of the sun, regardless of the temperature and snow pack, to return every year. For us the 2 birds that mark the beginning of the end for winter are the red-winged blackbird and the fox sparrow.
The blackbirds are breeding birds in the hay fields and marshes of the Poconos but unlike most breeding song birds they return early. Sometimes by late February they start to pop up at bird feeders. They will flock around feeders for about a month before moving back to their breeding territories in late March and April. Our first red-winged blackbirds appeared on February 22. I know it is hardly spring, but just by being there our spirits rose like the sap in the maple trees. Unfortunately for our spirits, and the maple trees, the Poconos dropped back into arctic conditions.
It is March 18. Conditions haven’t changed. This morning was only 16 degrees when I made my way to Kettle Creek, but I’ve got a bounce in my step even though the trails remain icy. A few days ago, there was dancing in my kitchen. The fox sparrows were back! For me this large plump, rusty red and grey sparrow is the most highly anticipated bird of the year. Head and shoulders above the song sparrow and white-throated sparrow, the fox sparrows don't just scratch the ground while feeding they excavate it. And it was that exaggerated motion, as if the bird were attacking the ice beneath the feeder that made me do a double take: “They’re back,” I hollered to anyone and everyone. When Jackie raced into the kitchen we danced for joy. It didn’t matter that it was only 10 degrees outside, spring was coming, not matter what the thermometer said. Yes, spring was coming; the fox sparrow told me so.
Like most people that take up birding as a past time I was obsessed with the list, finding the next new species that I hadn’t yet seen. I was a chaser and listened to the rare bird alerts weekly to get updates on the latest unusual avian visitors. In fact some of my fondest birding memories are of such treks to see rarities far from their normal ranges; a scissor-tailed flycatcher on the split rail fence along “bloody lane” at Antietam National Military Park comes immediately to mind. Or the hawk owl we missed in Vermont only to find out later that there had been one only a few miles from my parent’s home in the Poconos.
There comes a point in a birders development when it is nearly impossible to add new birds without chasing oddballs, birds that have taken a wrong turn somewhere or been blown in by a storm. Some people keep it fresh by creating multiple lists, for the yard, the county, the state the year. When we lived at the Caratunk Wildlife Sanctuary in Massachusetts there was a group of people that would visit every January 2nd to start their Massachusetts list, after having spent all of New Years Day in Rhode Island.
I’ve more or less given up on the chasing but Jackie and I do get to live vicariously through our young friend Stephen. In his early 20’s Stephen has all the zeal for birding I had 30 years ago (wow I have to admit that writing that just now made me pause for a moment). Stephen keeps lists, lots of them, and shares his sightings with us. It appears as though were I to get back into the chase this would be the year to do it. The great snowy owl invasion has captured most of the media attention but Stephen keeps us posted on the less famous though no less news worthy visitors like the white-winged scoters and redhead on Weir Lake or the northern shrike in Cherry Valley. All exciting birds to a birder but the report I enjoyed the most came from my brother John.
John is not a birder, but even he took notice of an apple tree full of robins in a driving snow storm on February 3rd. As is often the case with non birders, he was surprised to learn that there are a large number of robins that spend the winter in the Poconos. For the most part they are forest dwellers kicking through the leaf litter and eating the desiccated fruit on the winter berry and spice bush. But when a big storm blows in they often take to the trees in search of easy meals. This time they found it in the apple tree outside my brother’s window. This is one of the things I love about winter birding, even the regular birds can seem unusual when there’s a blizzard in your yard. I just hope they leave a few apples for the waxwings.
It is 2014. Happy New Year!
I have never in my life, ever, made a New Year’s resolution, but that has changed. It wasn’t something I was planning for a while and used the changing of the calendar as a reason to implement, but rather an impulsive, intuitive, desire brought on by the song of a bird.
There are not many birds that will sing on a cold day in the heart of winter but the Carolina wren is such a bird. Oh, I’ve heard black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice sing on bright January morns, but there was something special about this wren’s song that called to me.
Carolina wrens have been hanging out in my yard since I bought the house in 2002 and I’ve always enjoyed listening to them sing. They are, perhaps, the most melodious of winter singers. I like to think it’s because no one else is singing so they don’t have any completion for their repeated triplets.
Now a dozen years later as the year rolled over to the first day of 2014 I heard the robust, lusty song of a Carolina wren in full voice. I took it as a clarion call to get out and enjoy the world around me more.
So be it resolved that I intend to get out with Jackie and do more birding and botanizing, butterfly and dragonfly gazing. Not just get out and enjoy but to report to you my readers on what we discover and how we feel. It is my fervent desire that I maintain this blog more faithfully and to meet that end I may need your help.
If you find I’ve gone a month or more without writing a missive or two please send me an email and remind me not to let this resolution fail. I hope our paths may meet in 2014, and we can share a moment in each other’s company. If not have a happy and healthy 2014 and good birding!