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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).