This year Spring did not come in gradually. Winter hung on into the first part of April. Then, suddenly, months worth of ecological change flashed by in a few weeks: flowers bloomed and faded, trees budded, flowered, and leafed, and the migrant birds instead of slipping into (or out of) our area species by species arrived all at once seemingly in a gigantic, mixed flock. (Image of killdeer – D. Sillman)
In the space of two or three days we went from no migrant bird species to a full slate of birds battling for breeding and nesting sites. Towhees showed up at our front yard feeders and then were everywhere along the wooded hiking trails. The killdeer that nest on the flat roofs of the Penn State New Kensington buildings started frantically chorusing our arrival at work each morning. Orioles spread themselves out along the Roaring Run Trail, and the phoebes started escorting hikers along the Rock Furnace Trail. We spotted our first scarlet tanager along the southern section of the Scout’s Loop Trail at Harrison Hills Park, and a day later heard the first wood thrushes out on the Rachel Carson Trail. The grossbeaks and swifts, and all of the spring warblers are out there right now, too, just waiting to be noticed.
And, it’s funny how many big events you miss in the rush of Spring: I just realized that the juncos that have been such a large part of the winter birds around my yard are gone. They have flown north into their summer breeding areas. I will look for them when I am up in the Allegheny Forest this summer and note their return in the Fall as a “Sign of Coming Winter.”
We have also been watching all sorts of mating behaviors in the birds around our house. A male blue jay carrying a large kernel of corn in his beak chased a female jay through the branches of our spruce trees. They kept up the chase for ten minutes until, at last, they perched side by side on a high branch that hung out over our apple orchard. After a minute of motionless quiet, she reached over and took the piece of corn from her pursuer. A few days later we saw a male blue jay fumbling with an awkward beak-full of dried grasses as he paused on the top of our basketball backboard obviously on his way to help with nest building. I can’t say for sure that he was the same jay that had had the kernel of corn, but I like to think that he was.
We also watched a male house finch perched on the top of the wrought iron hanger that holds our bird feeders trying his best to feed a female cardinal. These feeding behaviors are a very common aspect of many bird species’ mating rituals. The cardinal was very perturbed by the persistent finch and finally ended their relationship with a solid peck on the top of his head. He flew off quickly and, I hope, came to his senses. Maybe now he is feeding some house finch nestlings in partnership with a more suitable mate!
We have seen several bald eagles this spring, too. The most recent was down on the Allegheny River near the Hulton Bridge. He was perched in a tree on the west bank of the river looking disdainfully away from the traffic roaring past on Route 28. Last summer we heard eagles when we walked along the Kiski River. It is a testament to conservation and ecological resilience to have these magnificent birds living so close to us once again!
The bluebirds seem abundant this year. There is a small flock at Penn State New Kensington that we see many mornings. The trees on the edges of the wooded areas of the campus are old enough to have a good number of potential nesting holes for these beautiful, little thrushes. We regularly see them up in the Apollo Cemetery, too. Lot’s of good habitat for them and lot’s of potential food sources.
But the greatest bird show we have seen so far this spring involved two non-migratory individuals who were so focused on each other that the rest of the world seemed to just fade away from their awareness. Deborah was able to approach to within 10 feet of these pileated woodpeckers (image below) up in Harrison Hills Park and stand and watch them dance and jostle each other as they circled around and and pecked and pounded on a tall, double-trunked oak tree. She watched this long, slow mating dance for over fifteen minutes.
Happy Spring! Happy Summer! Enjoy!