Day of the Trains
Sunrise is at 7:31 today, noticeably earlier than the darkest dawns 10 days ago. I’m not sure what difference that will make, but I’m up for subtle changes, particularly because it’s nearly clear. And it’s comfortably chilly at 25 degrees. Still no snow down here, but we are promised something this afternoon. We shall see.
TR, the tannery raven, is already croaking when I step out for my sit at 7:05. I should clarify: I only sit for some 20 minutes; after that, I’m usually stretching and pacing (it’s a big balcony). Same when I’m in the woods. Today, as on other clear, cold days, I do like to sit for a while, though: you see more when you’re unmoving, face to the sky.
Anyway, TR croaks while flying northward up the interstate, and again ten minutes later. But in that interval it’s quiet, or it would be, if not for the first train, a screecher from the east. This one’s brakes are just at that pitch that freezes you, many nails on many chalkboards. After that three-minute’s-pain it IS quiet, though: another tranquil Sunday.
Too quick for me to pull out my camera and turn it on, 16 Canada Geese come honking out of nowhere, out of the Gap, right over my head and gone. Another completely unpredictable dawn appearance. The single House Finch overhead, at 7:17, is one of the predictable ones, though, and several minutes early today.
American Crows are early, too, starting their caw-fest at 7:23 and basically not stopping. I’ll see what they’re up to in a little while.
A single Mallard from the east goes south over Brush, then the Black-capped Chickadee starts up, followed in quick succession by the White-breasted Nuthatch and Tufted Titmouse, all before 7:30 AM. A good day, indeed!
As Usual, Starlings and Robins
One lone European Starling arrives before all the rest, at 7:25. For several minutes it circles in the same spot it or another always circles around, above the bypass, halfway between me and the mountain, some 150 feet up. Pipping. I have to wonder what it’s up to: some inspection of the terrain, perhaps? An announcement of the vanguard, herald for the coming horde?
An American Robin hadn’t been singing in several days, and I was even wondering, with the change in weather, if robins would be about at all today. I needn’t have worried: one starts up at 7:35. I hesitate to call it the “Burger King Robin,” but it’s somewhere over there. Then robins and starlings start moving: starlings arriving, robins leaving. Robins arriving, starlings leaving. Rock Pigeons are up and out by 7:38.
Do They Listen to the Downy?
At 7:40 AM, the Downy Woodpecker starts ‘peek’-ing. And doesn’t stop. By now, if you’ve been following ‘Bird Mountain,’ you might suspect what this may mean. Scroll down if you’re curious. It calls for close to 20 minutes.
The starlings and robins are congregating at the grove of tall trees—poplars, willows, and others I can’t identify—at my 10, along Bald Eagle Creek. They’re flying down to my left out of sight, downtown, then back, and House Finches and House Sparrows are in on the action as well. The House Sparrows, I think, are coming and going from a tiny tree they love right at the very entrance to Tyrone, where 453 meets Pennsylvania Avenue, over across from the Post Office. Both sparrows and finches are up in the air a lot today, and a few seem to like perching in with the robins and starlings.
Starling vocalizations these days, other than the wheeling ‘pips,’ are cheering sounds, gurgles, a Blue Jay-like call, a dooooown slide, a rasp, and then a call that sounds like a Cedar Waxwing, and another like the clucking of a Red-winged Blackbird or maybe a Common Grackle. No Killdeer yet. My favorite starling vocalization so far has been the single Pine Siskin flight call (I heard and saw the starling make it as it flew close overhead) last year, just minutes after I saw the only Pine Siskin of last year fly past my balcony, calling.
I’m getting antsy: the crows aren’t letting up out in the Gap, and I need to go to the pond, anyway. At 7:50, as the sun starts to push through, ten starlings flock to an interstate lamp. All is well in starling world. Twelve robins head out through the Gap, high up, as if it were December and there were grapes to be had somewhere.
Then, just before 8 AM, a falcon-like shape resolves itself from off Bald Eagle Mountain, diving fast. Not a falcon, but a Cooper’s Hawk, all business. It’s reached at least 40 miles per hour when it passes over the interstate and veers left toward the grove at my 10 and out of sight. The hawk’s progress is marked by flushing clouds of birds: starling, robins, House Sparrows, House Finches, all scatter (Rock Pigeons: unconcerned). Alarm calls from robins, all directions. The Downy Woodpecker has finally hushed, but I do wonder about that incessant calling.
Here’s a photo of a vocal American Robin sentry that posted to the sycamore top at my 3 right after:
The prey don’t disappear after the ravenous Cooper’s shows up. Instead, they gather in even bigger and more boisterous numbers in the tops of the 10 o’clock grove. The Downy starts back up again and is still going as I wrap this up. Two more Canada Geese honk out of the Gap and turn north.
Saltillo! Coahuila! Cleveland!
Last week’s flood is nearly gone, and the morning qualifies as nearly perfect, even though those of us with radar know a snowstorm is coming (maybe). But the birds are entirely absent: no heron, no kingfisher, no ducks. The Terra Nullius between the river and the tracks are barren, void, noiseless, motionless.
I’m in a hurry to get to the pond, and the route is blessedly train-less. For a couple minutes, anyway; then, a tatt-ed and tagged old one rattles into view on the west-bound track, snug along the Bald Eagle Formation cut at the steep end of Laurel Ridge. “Saltillo!”, “Coahuila!,” “Cleveland!”: some nice spray calligraphy, who knows how old?
The pond is three-quarters ice-skimmed, with the duck crowd, as usual, crammed into the unfrozen east end, 150 yards away. A quick scan gets the hotspot the young American Wigeon and drake Wood Duck, first for late January, in with some 40 Mallards.
A rumble from the east becomes a coal train on a glacial crawl, slowing down to stop, blocking all ways out for me. This could be minutes, or hours. The trains often back up here, waiting before crossings or blocking crossings, before Altoona, the Horseshoe Curve, and the Gallitzin Tunnels, all legendary features of the Main Line.
I inch over toward the ducks but the second rail closer to me begins to vibrate, and I hear the whistles of another train from the west. It’s better to get quickly to the far end of the pond, and away from this narrow neck of gravel. Too fast for the ducks, unfortunately, which all flush. The locomotive is on top of me anyway, and as it passes, the choking odor of fermentation: east-bound garbage train.
I give up and go back to my sit spot by the mountainside to retrieve my scope. One train gone, the other begins to move again, thankfully. I’m outta here, back to the river. But the trains aren’t done, uncharacteristically for a Sunday. A lone starling cheers from some sort of metal tower, a single Carolina Wren sings, and one chickadee. That’s it. Not even a Winter Wren can be coaxed from its usual log-pile; perhaps it has left the area.
One last thing happens: American Crows begin to gather in the woods of Laurel Ridge, across the tracks. They’re the ones from earlier, cawing just loud enough to raise suspicions, though not frenetically. Still, though, maybe they’re giving away a Red-tailed Hawk, or even an owl. But the trains aren’t done: now comes the west-bound garbage train, beat-up blue metal boxes, not as pungent as the earlier one. It passes, but the crows give up and move on, around the ridge and off to the valley.
As I reach my car, another train comes through. A few minutes after that, yet another as I’m pulling my chair off the balcony.
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