Christmas bird count: the wild and the quiet

Saturday, December 17, 2005: Christmas Bird Count. For my mother and my brother Steve, this is, I think, a bigger deal than Christmas itself. For me – a non-birder despite my involvement with the Audubon chapter that sponsors our local count – it affords a rare opportunity to follow my mother around on her morning walk. Since this is her main source for the natural history observations that fuel her writing, she almost always goes out alone. But on the CBC, it’s always a good idea to have a second set of eyes and ears. And this year, with an unprecedented fifteen inches of snow on the ground, I figured she’d appreciate having someone to break a snowshoe trail for her.

So strictly speaking, I wouldn’t be following her; she’d follow me. But it didn’t seem to matter, since neither of us were in any hurry. We knew Steve had gotten up at the crack of dawn and driven the short distance from his house in town to the bottom of the mountain. Together with our friend Todd – a beginning birder – he’d take care of the more bird-rich half of the property, down in the hollow, as well as along the Little Juniata River, which flows through the gap.

I had meant to get up early and listen for owls, but wouldn’t you know it: for the first time in ages, I slept in past daybreak and didn’t rise until 6:30. The first bird I saw or heard as I sat out on the porch drinking my coffee was a mourning dove, fluttering up from the stream on musical wings.

“Mourning dove!” I announced by way of a greeting when I walked in the door of my parents’ house. “Oh boy, do we have doves!” Mom said. A flock of fifty swarmed the birdseed below the feeders, scarfing up the cracked corn. We watched them for a moment in silence. “Well, if anything happens,” Mom said – meaning, I guess, if the world economy suddenly collapses, triggering another Great Depression – “we’ll have plenty to eat!”

But barring that, we’d only be bagging birds in the most figurative sense. Come to think of it, the hundred-year-old tradition of the CBC is based on a conscious rejection of an older, more sanguinary tradition: the Side Hunt. Those four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree? They were for supper.

*

It’s 7:45 when we finally leave the house. At 20 degrees Fahrenheit, there are few early birds and even fewer worms. The gibbous moon hangs low over the ridge. At 7:50, we stop a stone’s throw beyond the barn for our first “pish break.” Pursing her lips, Mom lets loose with a series of urgent vowel-less syllables – pshh pshh pshh – which in avian Esperanto must mean something like, “Free beer! Free beer!” Some species respond to it more readily than others, but generally speaking, pishing is a good way to see if any dickey birds might be lurking in the weeds. Right now, though, nothing stirs. “They’re all at the feeders,” Mom says.

7:55. American crow, a distant cawing. The faint yank yank yank of a nuthatch. I look back. Mom has her pocket notebook out and is scribbling away, taking notes for next year’s December column in Pennsylvania Game News, no doubt. I take note of this in my own pocket notebook.

“What are you writing about me?”

“What are you writing about me?”

8:05. Juncos, and maybe a white-throated sparrow or two, flitting around in a nest of fallen trees overgrown with dried grasses at the edge of Margaret’s Woods. I circle the thicket, trying to drive them out so Mom can count them.

“They hide too well, Memsahib!”

At 8:17, at the top edge of the field, we hit our first small clot of avian activity. The weak sunlight is just starting to warm the southeast-facing, wooded slope of what we call Sapsucker Ridge. I tally them by ear: black-capped chickadee, titmouse, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch. Mom scans the grape thickets, looking mainly for those birds that don’t come to the feeders: the lonely and the rum, I think, remembering the song chanted at the great winter bonfire in the children’s classic Moominland Midwinter.

Here come the dumb,
The lonely and the rum,
The wild and the quiet.
Thud goes the drum.

Mom takes note of the downies, since they rarely come into the feeder. They are, however, neither lonely nor particularly rum, as woodpeckers go.

“Oh look, they’re courting! Oh, isn’t that cute!” It is.

8:33. A pileated woodpecker flies silently overhead, following the edge of the woods. We pause to admire its characteristic undulating flight. Pileateds are definitely rum.

A couple hundred feet farther along, we run across our first set of coyote tracks. There’s a scant quarter-inch of fresh snow on top of the crust – perfect tracking conditions. And this morning we’ll get a pretty good idea of just how many coyotes are roaming the mountain: lots! This is one of the biggest ironies of winter, I think. Though life is at its lowest ebb, what life still stirs is much more in evidence now than during the warmer months, when a thick green veil lies over the land.

I follow the coyote tracks a short distance into the woods, ignoring my mother’s mild complaints at the extra walking. While the crust is strong enough to support the coyotes, we break through with each step, and where the snow has fallen on top of a thick thatch of weeds, my snowshoes sink down well over a foot. But the reward isn’t long in coming: a sudden blur of loud wingbeats erupts from the snow at the base of a wild grape tangle. “Ruffed grouse!”

So there’s our partridge, as some folks insist on calling grouse. Now where’s that pear tree?

*

8:50. We’ve been birding for one hour now. We’ve made it at least 300 yards from the house.

The sun slowly grows brighter as the clouds in the east thin out. My mother scans the grape thickets on the far side of the small powerline right-of-way that bisects our property at right angles to the ridges. “There’s a red-bellied,” she calls out. “And a pair of pileateds.” I’m taking pictures of a fresh deer bed with a coyote track running through the middle of it. We’re standing at the base of a huge black cherry tree, wondering if maybe we ought to pick up the pace a little, when the pileateds launch themselves into the air one after the other, cross the powerline, and land on the trunk of the cherry tree right above our heads. We stand open-mouthed as they hitch themselves briefly up the trunk, their great heads pivoting on their straight, sleek bodies like African gods, red crests brilliant in the sun.

8:57. A distant, nasal ark ark ark. “Raven!” we call out in unison.

We take another short loop through the woods, right beyond the powerline. There’s just enough snow to bury most of the fallen logs that are directly on the ground; this is where having snowshoes really pays off.

9:05. Teakettle, teakettle! Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle! Chirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp! “Ah, there he is!” Mom says happily. But who wouldn’t feel happy after hearing a Carolina wren? You could have the gun in your mouth with your finger on the trigger, ready to end it all, and the song of a Carolina wren would still make you smile. If then the bird himself hopped into view, bobbing up and down and pointing his inquisitive bill in every direction, your heart would melt, I swear. Even in the darkest, coldest days of the year, depression can never linger long in a home haunted, as ours is, by Carolina wrens.

9:10. Just as we emerge from the woods, I notice a pair of large, rainbow-colored spots in the cirrus clouds on either side of the sun. “Look – sun dogs!” It seems like a very good omen.

Still heading along the edge of Sapsucker Ridge, we’re on the alert for its namesake the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which Mom spotted here just yesterday. She logs a cardinal, then a small flock of goldfinches. Something raps on a tree, a little louder and slower than a downy woodpecker. “Now that one sounds like a hairy, wouldn’t you say?” Yes, I would.

9:32. We’ve just begun moving after perhaps our hundredth pause, disappointed that the sapsucker still hasn’t shown. I glance over at the ridge and see a large black shape laboring up the hillside. “Look! Look!” Mom finally glances up from her notebook. “Bears!”

A second, smaller bear emerges from behind the rootball of a fallen tree fifty feet away – legacy of last January’s icestorm, which felled two-thirds of the trees in this section of the woods – and follows the first bear up the side of the ridge.

My camera is in my hand, but I decide to keep watching rather than to squander this sighting with one eye shut and the other pressed to the viewfinder. The best picture I could get with this camera probably wouldn’t be worth sharing, anyway.

After the second bear disappears we wait for a few seconds to see if any more will emerge. There seem to have been two mother bears with cubs roaming our end of the mountain this year, and oddly enough – judging by the numerous reports from our deer-hunting friends over the past few weeks – neither have gone into hibernation yet. One mother has three cubs, but we decide this must be other one, who has but a single cub. I climb cautiously up to the rootball, following a line of bear tracks probably from the day before, dusted over by last night’s snow.

“You gotta come see this,” I tell my mother. “It’s a regular den!” I help her up over the couple of rough spots and she joins me at the edge of the cluster of logs, peering down into a bear-shaped hole. In all her years of tramping through the woods, this is a first.

We worry a little about whether we’ve disturbed them just as they were finally getting settled down for the winter, but knowing what resilient creatures bears can be, and how many similar configurations of logs and rootballs dot the mountain now, we figure this probably won’t set them back too much.

The woods had been quiet for at least five minutes before we saw the bears. Now, a minute later, the trees and grapevines are once again alive with small fluttering forms. Poor Sam, sings a white-throated sparrow – and stops, as if thinking better of it. It’s too glorious a morning for such a mournful tune.

*

It’s the end of our second hour, and we’ve made it as far as the thirty-year-old grove of Norway spruce at the top of First Field, a quarter mile from the house. Once again, I persuade my mother to go off-trail. “Let’s just cut through the corner of the grove,” I say. “Might be a long-eared owl in there, you never know!” Perhaps it takes a non-birder to trust in such far-fetched scenarios, but several years before, Mom had indeed found one of those rare winter visitors in the grove, though not in time for the CBC.

I hear an odd chirp I don’t recognize. “That sounds like a kinglet!” I hear Mom say, and she suddenly starts breaking her own trail into the grove. But as luck would have it, it’s me, without binoculars, who gets the visual confirmation. One of the two chirpers flits into the tree right in front of me. She pauses for a few seconds on an open bough, and the bright, angelic glow at the top of her head leaves no doubt at the identification. “That’s a golden-crowned kinglet, all right.”

“Oh, wonderful! That’s my favorite winter bird! But I haven’t been able to find a one in this grove,” Mom says.

That’s par for the course. No matter how ardently one scouts things out in advance, Christmas Bird Count always brings surprises, I don’t know why. That’s the magic of it, I guess. Even people like me, with a natural aversion to counting and listing, can’t avoid sharing in that to some extent, just as the presence of children can make one see Christmas as something more than an empty celebration of greed.

10:05. We’re halfway along the Road to the Far Field, following a snowshoe trail I’d broken the day before. It feels like a superhighway compared to where we’ve been. Suddenly Mom stops and raises her binoculars. “There’s a bluebird up ahead! Ohmigosh. I haven’t seen one in weeks.” As we stand there marveling, the whole little flock of bluebirds flies right toward us and passes overhead, six of them in all. So far, I’m doing just fine without binoculars.

We pause to admire a small mammal track: an intestine-like knot of narrow tunnels pushed up right in the most recent quarter-inch of snow. “Was this a vole?” I ask. Mom looks at it carefully. “No, I’d say that’s a shrew – probably a least shrew, by the size of it.”

10:25. We reach Coyote Bench, as Mom calls it, and brush off the snow with our gloves. We each have insulated cushions strapped to our belts, and this seems like a good time to use them. With all the leaves down, the bench affords a good view of Sinking Valley, and Mom soon has her binoculars trained on the homes of our mostly unknown neighbors below.

“Look at that castle! I wonder who lives there?”

“Wasn’t that the place that X built, after clearcutting and selling off his land on the mountain?” X’s property bordered ours for a short distance at the end of the Far Field; he owned a several-hundred-acre piece of mountain asset and raped it twice in the space of thirty years. Not much grows over there now but hayscented fern and striped maple.

“Oh yeah, maybe you’re right. Why in the world would anyone want to live in a place like that, though? You’d spend all your time cleaning! And then he died a year or two after he built it.”

“Must’ve been all the cleaning.”

This leads us into a half-hour, rambling discussion of environmental issues and the possibilities for social change, about which my mother tends to take an even gloomier view than I do. Still, we’re cheered by the sight of Amish haystacks right on the other side of the road from the “castle.” Sinking Valley is still quite rural, and the Amish are managing to buy up many of the farms as they go on the market, keeping the subdivisions at bay – at least for now.

*

The hoped-for winter wren never puts in an appearance, so we resume our walk, shortly emerging into the Far Field and breaking fresh trail once again. The next hour doesn’t turn up any new species, though we are able to count all the common feeder birds out here, a mile from the house. Down at the end of the field, we scare up our second grouse for the day, and a little later I find its meandering tracks. Where it hopped over a fallen tree, it left a pair of neat wing prints on the far side.

A strenuous loop through the woods at the back corner of the field turns up nothing, and I feel bad for having put my mother through it, though she’s a pretty good sport about it. But on the way back through the field, the masses of dried goldenrod are full of foraging sparrows and chickadees. A raven sails past for the third time this morning, and a moment later we hear a slightly higher-pitched answer to his croaking cry. Since many years the ravens don’t make an appearance on the CBC at all, we feel quite fortunate in being able to log them both.

11:55. Just as we’re heading into the woods toward home, a large flock of starlings swirls up out of the valley and lands in the treetops on the far side of the field, where we’d just been. This is, believe it or not, a species we don’t get for the bird count every year, here on the mountain. Mom trains her glasses on the noisy birds, and makes a ballpark estimate of 150. After three or four minutes, the flock lifts off and heads down-ridge.

Very little is stirring now; this is what birders call the mid-day lull. We make it back to the house in just half an hour. Steve has arrived before us, and he and Dad – who spent the morning on feeder duty – point out our resident sharp-shinned hawk perched on a log a little ways up in the woods, ripping at a junco. They both got to see her swoop in and chase her prey around the cedar tree right next to the house – an almost daily drama, now. The red-breasted nuthatch has been in and out all morning, too, Dad says.

Steve and Mom compare notes. As we figured, the golden-crowned kinglets, bluebirds and ruffed grouse were our only unique species contributions. Steve got all the others we did, plus flicker, brown creeper, winter wren, and two rare winter visitors that Mom had scouted out for him in the days leading up to the count: a towhee and a hermit thrush. He was no luckier than we were with sapsuckers, and confirmed our sense that, for the first time ever, cedar waxwings seem to be absent from the mountain for the CBC. (In fact, as we’d learn that evening at the bird count covered dish supper, no one saw waxwings anywhere in the count circle.)

But Steve and Todd were amply rewarded for their strenuous hike (neither wore snowshoes) by the fresh fisher tracks they found all over the northwest side of the hollow. After the couple of sightings this past fall, there seems little doubt now that Plummer’s Hollow boasts at least one resident fisher – one of the rarest mammals in Pennsylvania.

Steve waits until we finish enthusing about our black bears, then oh-so-casually mentions his best sighting of the day: a late migrating golden eagle. He and Mark got one for the CBC once before, several years ago, but this one was much lower, and it soared right overhead. “You wouldn’t have needed binoculars at all,” he says. It was that kind of day.

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