For the birds

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Squish, squish, squish went my boots as I waded through the tall grass on Greenbriar Trail. But much as I looked forward to changing into dry pants and shoes, strangely enough, I was content. Starting at 6:05 in the morning, we had managed to tally many of the deep-woods species for which the Bald Eagle Important Bird Area was designated, including Acadian flycatchers; worm-eating, black-throated green and cerulean warblers; and a plethora of wood thrushes, ovenbirds and scarlet tanagers. We had run into a box turtle on Laurel Ridge Trail, and enjoyed views of the adjacent ridges rising above a thick blanket of fog. Though it was extremely humid and the vegetation was still sopping wet from the previous evening’s downpour, at least the air was cool and it hadn’t rained on us.

True, the real birders — my mom and my brother Steve — were unhappy at all the no-shows, but that’s in the nature of point counts, I guess. The idea isn’t to count every bird every time, but to capture most of the breeding species every year, in a consistent enough fashion to be able to track population trends over the course of decades. And it’s not everybody who’s fortunate enough to be able to go out their front door and find themselves in the middle of an IBA. In our case, though we don’t have a hawk watch on the property, we’re situated on a ridge with one of the highest recorded counts of golden eagles in eastern North America, which I think helped persuade the scientists on the Ornithological Technical Committee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey that Bald Eagle Ridge was worthy of designation as an IBA — one of over 80 in the state. Its abundance of interior forest habitat was the other key consideration. As conservationists here never tire of pointing out, Pennsylvania is home to 17 percent of the world’s scarlet tanagers and nine percent of the wood thrushes. Long-term data, such as those generated by point counts, will help scientists monitor the health of these species.

The point count protocol developed by Audubon Pennsylvania involves counting every bird seen or heard in three minutes at each permanently designated point on a route. Counters must go out two times each breeding season, defined as the months of May and June, between 6:00 and 10:00 in the morning. The points must be 500 feet apart, and we have sixteen of them in our route, starting at the spruce grove at the top of the field, and taking in both ridges and the deep hollow in between before ending up on my parents’ front porch — Point 16. On Saturday, I was the official timekeeper and note taker; Mom and Steve identified the birds, mostly by ear.

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Point 14 is in the field near the edge of the woods, along a mowed trail we call Butterfly Loop. As we stood there counting, a pair of fawns came bounding down the trail toward us. I whipped out my camera and snapped a couple of pictures before they turned and raced off. Then, as we squished on toward the next point, they came running back. This time, the bolder of the two got within six feet of me before deciding that I might be dangerous. We almost had the venison equivalent of veal for supper a lovefest.

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Steve spotted a sharp-shinned hawk harrying a red-tailed hawk in the sky over Laurel Ridge as we neared Point 15. Then, on the way back down toward the house, he asked if we’d seen any Baltimore checkerspots. “Not yet,” I said. But then we spotted one.

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You may remember my post about the caterpillars, which feed mainly* on turtlehead, a plant that isn’t nearly as common as it used to be, thanks to the hooved rats our friends the deer. We found two Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars this spring, and on Saturday morning, we saw two adults, one after the other — both in the vicinity of our largest patch of turtlehead.

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Most of the yard birds remained stubbornly silent during the three minutes we listened on the front porch, so the count ended on a bit of a gloomy note. But there’s no denying the pleasure that can come from changing into a dry pair of socks. I draped my wet socks over the railing on my own front porch, and later that afternoon, I noticed they had become a Mecca for great spangled fritillaries.

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When I poked my head out around 5:00, I even caught a pair of butterflies mating on my socks, though I wasn’t able to get a picture of it. I guess there are all kinds of good reasons to get one’s feet wet.

*Edited from “exclusively,” which turns out not be true, according to the latest science. Thanks to commenter “striped twistie” for the correction (see message string).

15 Replies to “For the birds”

  1. Love that Baltimore checkerspot. What a beauty. And, how lucky for you that you live where the golden eagle soars. I’ve never seen one, although they do live here on the peninsula. I think they stay up at the higher elevation in the Olympic range.

    Cute fawn shots. I’m glad you opted not to have them for dinner, but chose to have the lovefest instead.

    Wet socks as a fritillary aphrodisiac. Who knew?

  2. My father being one of those true birders, I’ve always been fascinated by the big counting events, and what an important ritual they are for him. I’ve never quite grasped the significance of them, but clearly they’re much more than a scientific duty or an excuse to go out birding. They’re an act of devotion, the equivalent, for my vehemently anti-religious father, of cleaning the shrine or filling the offering-bowls.

  3. fyi – the Balt. checkerspot is associated with English plantain but I’ve seen it emerge from a chrysalis on a much taller plant.

  4. Thank you, and your folks. This is such important work.

    And I’m sure the butterflies are grateful for the wet socks, in their own way.

  5. Beautiful pictures as ever & a fascinating account. The butterfly love fest on the socks has to be a naturalist’s first. Shouldn’t it be logged with the National Geographic or something..?

  6. Hi y’all, thanks for the comments. I had a comment of my own all ready to go yesterday afternoon, in response to the first three, when the power blinked off. So let me try again.

    robin andrea – We have to go to some trouble to see golden eagles here, too — the bastards tend to fly on the far side of the higher ridge. But they migrate so late in the season, sometimes the leaves are already down. Twice my brother has gotten one for the Christmas Bird Count.

    dale – I think you’re right about birding being an act of devotion, though many of the birders I know are conventionally religious as well. See, for example, this post from the Birdchaser.

    striped twistie – You’re right; it seems I am guilt of hyperbole/outdated information in claiming that turtlehead is the only food source for Baltimore caterpillars. I’ll make a correction. Thanks for setting me straight!

    Keith – They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Actually, I am sick of that cliche, but in this case it might be true. Just take a look at the idotic, Mickey Mouse expression on that fawn’s face. (Have I mentioned I loathe Disney, too?) I’d love to see a remake of Bambi from the forest’s point of view. The hunter would be the hero, and there’d be sinister music whenever a deer drew near.

    Zhoen – It was my pleasure … sort of.

    Beth – Jokes?

    Dick – Butterflies are attracted to all sorts of disgusting things. And their typical method of ingesting said things is to throw up on them, so the stomach acids can get to work in breaking them down, then re-ingest the whole mess. I presume this was true of the foot fungus-laced salts that permeated my wet socks.

    This, of course, just makes me appreciate butterflies all the more. Kind of like knowing that chipmunks, despite appearing cute as the dickens, are fiercely solitary and hostile little Napoleans.

  7. Good christ. My spam-blocking program just flagged my own comment – the one above – as spam! I had to go rescuse it from purgatory.

    Folks, if you ever leave a comment here and it doesn’t appear in short order, please drop me a line.

  8. Here on Droop Mountain, we feel better about the deer–the cute little fawns are like calves or lambs, and we speculate on how big they’ll be by hunting season. We are outraged by dogs and coyotes that kill them when they’re still too small for us to eat. Try thinking “dinner,” rather than “Bambi,” and you’ll have fewer deer as well as fewer hostile thoughts.

  9. I do think dinner. The problem is, our hunting seasons are much too short to really change deer behavior in the way that year-round predation by wolves or mountain lions might, and protect vulnerable areas like forest edges, clearings and riverbanks. In the presence of natural predators, deer and elk spend much more time lying up, and certainly don’t openly graze in areas where they would be vulnerable to ambush.

    I don’t begrudge the coyotes their take — roughly equivalent to the number killed by black bears — but it doesn’t have a significant effect on the population.

  10. Glorious. I adore the word “fritillary,” and the thing itself is even prettier.

    Also, those fawns! Good grief. I’m amazed they let you get close enough to photograph them like that. Mighty pretty.

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