Bird of the Year
-Thur, Mar 30 2023-
To get ahead of birds and blogs, I’ve set my alarm back to four. It’s shockingly quiet—what happened to the robins???—and wonderfully clear, temperature dropping from 28.
At 5:58 AM I make the first moves toward the balcony, and I am greeted by two Song Sparrow tunes, but no robins. After a few minutes, the American Robins in the neighborhood crank it up, reaching a crescendo by a quarter past, breaking into the sparrow melodies: the only two species taking part in this ultra-early dawn chorus.
At 6:29 AM, as the temperature dips to 25, a drive-through bank House Sparrow, deep in its preferred manicured shrub, joins in. For one of the world’ most ubiquitous and intelligent birds, it certainly has an unattractive, even annoying, repertoire of vocalizations. Meanwhile, what I take to be robins zip about in the gloom. The Carolina Wren ‘teakettles’ deafeningly and repeatedly, also from the area of the bank, to my right across the river.
At 6:35, I happen to be swiveled toward Sapsucker Ridge, and I catch a trio of diminutive, fast-flying birds emerging from the Gap, something that doesn’t fit my search image for this time of day. Typically, Mallard and Wood Duck fly this early, but otherwise… I manage to glass them microseconds before they disappear behind the building roof to my right. Enough time to grab a mental snapshot of a male Bufflehead in full breeding plumage!
The first all-time new species for the hotspot this year, it’s also PH200 #84. I’ve been trying to detect Buffleheads for years: they’re a diving duck that can easily be found at big lakes in the area during migration, but they’re not known to commonly vocalize in flight, so I would not have been able to detect them via NFC. I suspect these ones were forced down by last night’s cold squall and spent some time on the river downstream somewhere. Up and out at first light, they would be heading toward a more favorable water body in their flight path: one of the local Tyrone reservoirs, perhaps, or Curwensville Lake some 25 miles to the northwest, or beyond, to a western Finger Lake in New York, or Lake Erie itself.
The day just gets better from here. Right after the buffies, a Killdeer flies across from right to left toward the fields beyond the interchange. It doesn’t vocalize. This is the first one I’ve actually seen in the hotspot this year, though I’ve picked the species up on the antenna nearly every night or dawn since late February.
Speaking of the antenna, I was happy to record the first American Pipit from the night before last, just before 5 AM. Early in the month, I recorded what can only be Horned Lark twitter. Both these species should pick up in numbers in April: all we need is a few nights with warm southerly flow.
The first part of the dawn chorus is over by 6:43 when the Northern Cardinal calls, the 10th species of the morning. After a five-minute break (except for sparrows and robins), it continues with the first House Finch, an American Crow cawing overhead, and that same old White-breasted Nuthatch. I wasn’t looking at the electric pole today, but I believe it landed there before continuing to the maple. It’s nothing if not predictable, at least this week.
By 7 AM, Common Grackles and European Starlings are hurrying to their favorite sycamore. I find it fascinating how they stream in from all directions, full of activity and song, but after an hour, they abandon their post, reoccupying it only at the end of the day.
Often, something I can’t make out upsets them; they erupt from the tree canopy and scatter, almost stumbling over one another to get away. Today’s alarm is raised by a group of five grackles that flies over from the south: the noise they make sounds like Standard Grackle to me, but it results in a loud, hurried, and complete evacuation of the tree, as grackles, starlings, House Sparrows, House Finches, and a few robins all scatter across my field of vision, calling loudly in alarm but after 20 seconds or so, looping back to the dawn perch again.
House Sparrows are not only up much earlier these days, they’re also impinging on my personal space. I’ve gotten used to robins eyeing me from the nearest wires, and rushing past my face, but none of the other species come closer than the trees and hedges (granted, there’s no closer vegetation). House Sparrows, however, have taken to flying from the hedge along 10th Street under the cars in our lot, then out of sight along the wall below my feet. I suppose they’re cleaning up whatever organic refuse they can find.
Today, the numbers are up even though there’s no breeze, so I wait until close to eight to wind up my vigil (27 spp. in all). Oddly, Canada Geese never appear, though a Turkey Vulture finally shows up at 7:33. Best of all, an elongated ‘tseep’ call from the brush along the river takes a few minutes to sink in; then I have it, and check on Merlin: Swamp Sparrow! I don’t manage to see this skulker, but it’s PH200 #85. Odd that it’s doing a flight call; it would seem to be perched, but perhaps it’s flying about out of sight.
Swallows Return to the Valley
Gorgeous and crystal clear, but still cold in the afternoon. I porch-sit for two hours. All the local soon-to-be-nesters are singing at one but quiet by three. It takes a full hour for a local Red-tailed Hawk to show up, and it’s circling out over the Gap, near one of its favorite perch spots on snag along the steepest part of Bald Eagle Mountain. Focusing on the hawk, I spot two small shapes circling nearby in a way I’ve not seen in half a year: Tree Swallows! That is where I would expect to see them (PH200 #86); they don’t nest anywhere in the hotspot, but they often make incursions from the valleys to the east. They’re the first swallow to return, the only one we’ve seen in March, and I suppose they are already setting up shop at all the local wetlands, or soon will.
The only local species absent for a long period during this sit is the Common Grackle. This is remedied at 2:30 when eight males fly in and alight on the poplar, gleaming in the brilliant sunlight.
Right after work I rush up to grab two nights’ of NFCs. A Fish Crow is flying about upstream of the Plummer’s Hollow bridge around a the tiny island, just a bit of rocks and detritus-laden shrubs, the only part of the stream during this high-water event that is still above the waning flood.
(Fly fishermen don’t seem deterred by the high water: when I come back down, a truck with Virginia plates is parked by the bridge, its occupant out in the water for a bit of R&R. Later, from my balcony, I watch another fisherman at the confluence, until nearly dusk.)
In the Hollow, a Winter Wren flies in front of the car, desperately searching for a hiding place in the slash of one of many downed trees removed from the narrow lane.
On the way back out, while I’m unlocking the gate, sans binoculars, I spot three large, black forms gliding out from the steep side of Bald Eagle Mountain above the bridge. I take them to be Common Ravens, as this species often glides about and does strange maneuvers. But as they head single file across to Plummer’s Hollow above me, I catch white on the wings. These are three Black Vultures looking for all the world like Keel-billed Toucans (absent the “Fruit Loops” colors, of course)! Their necks and heads are stretched out to full extent, tails slightly flared, not flapping. I’ve watched untold numbers of this species in flight before (they occur in flocks of hundreds in Latin America), but I cannot remember ever seeing this specific flight pattern before.
Raven at the VFW
In the evening, the Canada Geese are back in the skies. Our local junkyard Common Raven, who has been quite busy these days, has found a new perch on the back roof of the VFW building. The starlings are on their sycamore perch to catch the last rays, while flocks of grackles stream over from the east. The last Turkey Vulture soars at 7:40, and then the robins take to the parking lots.