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.