If someone had asked me to write a Hollywood movie script for the perfect spring on the Twin Tiers, I don’t think I could have written a better one than what we’ve had this spring.
Admittedly, not many people would pay to see a movie called “Long and Slow,” but that’s my idea of the perfect spring.
In most years, we seem to go from winter to summer in about a week. One day it’s 40 degrees and a week later it’s 75 degrees. The problem with that from the point of view of a birder is that the leaves go from buds to full size in the matter of a few days, which makes it very difficult to see birds let alone photograph them. But this spring has been different, which has allowed me and other people to get good looks — and photographs — of birds that generally spend all their time high overhead in the tree canopy.
Take for example the scarlet tanager, which is a deep forest bird that is more often heard than seen because the male spends all his time at the tops of trees. But since the leaves have been slow to open this spring, making it hard for them to find bugs high up, I’ve been finding them in forest undergrowth, which is generally much close to eye
level and much easier to photograph.
Another example is the American redstart, which is one of our earliest warblers, and even though it’s an understory bird, they can be very difficult to see if the leaves burst out too early. On a recent hike in Allegany State Park, redstarts seemed to be everywhere, making them easy to photograph.
The same is true with blue-gray gnatcatchers, which generally seem to hunt from a perch 5 to 10 feet above my head, which makes them difficult to photograph, but on the coolest days of the last couple of weeks, bugs were staying closer to the ground so the birds that feed on them were staying closer to the ground. This opens up the possibility of photographing them at eye level.
It’s true that the weak Nor’easter that sat off the East Coast for five days between the second and third week of May, funneling cool Canadian air and rain showers into our area, put a damper on outdoor activities, but even that seemed to help with the birding by holding back many of our songbird migrants in areas to our south. Once the system cleared, ruby-throated hummingbirds, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks and Baltimore orioles seemed to pour into our area rather than trickle in, with readers telling me they were seeing large numbers of these birds at their feeding stations. That was the case at my house with the first ruby-throated hummingbirds and rose-breasted grosbeaks showing up after the Nor’easter moved further offshore.
And like many other people, I put out orange slices in early May expecting them to be eaten by Baltimore orioles, and then forgot about them until two weeks later when I saw three separate orioles eating the dried-out slices. I then went out and bought fresh oranges and they weren’t on my deck more than half an hour before the orioles were eating them. Since these birds fly hundreds of miles to get here, it’s not surprising that they arrive hungry, but this year there were more of them and they seemed hungrier.
But what really keeps my going out into the buggy woods at this time of the year are the songbirds that are here today and gone tomorrow, on their way to points further north, and so far it’s been a good year for those.
Beginning with the Allegheny River Valley Trail between Gargoyle Park and St. Bonaventure University during the first full week of May, I was treated to large numbers of yellow-rumped warblers dripping off the tree branches hanging over the Allegheny River. I stopped counting at 50. There were other species as well, but in smaller numbers, including American redstart, hooded warbler, Cape May warbler, palm warbler, blackburnian warbler, Nashville warbler, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, warbling vireo, Wilson’s warbler and an early Philadelphia vireo.
Some of those will stay to nest but the Wilson’s warbler, palm warbler, Cape May warbler, Philadelphia vireo and most of the yellow-rumped warblers were just passing through, putting on fat reserves for the rest of their journey.
On alternate days I combined birding with hiking at Golden Hill State Forest in Great Valley and on one especially active morning I saw indigo bunting, Nashville warbler, magnolia warbler, red-eyed vireo, black and white warbler, black-throated blue warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, Northern parula and an oddly out of place great-crested flycatcher, which I’m much more accustomed to seeing in the damp Allegheny River valley rather than the high and dry state forests. Still, he was actively feeding, so maybe he’ll attract a female and stay to nest.
And since all movie scripts need a little drama, I could write Quaker Lake into the script since there always seems to be something exciting happening there. In early May I photographed a common tern there that was being harassed by an osprey, but the real drama came on Mothers’ Day, when my mother and I stopped there for lunch and without ever leaving the car saw a juvenile bald eagle come low over the water, drop its talons and snatch a fish out of the lake.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, an adult bald eagle then began chasing the juvenile, presumably to steal the fish, and as I was photographing that interaction, an osprey came into view and also went after the juvenile bald eagle. Admittedly, this was all happening at quite a distance so I couldn’t tell who got the fish in the end, but one could hope that in keeping with the holiday, it was the juvenile’s mother.
In any case, that’s how it would end if I were writing the script.
Images of some of the birds mentioned here can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/meadowsteward.
(Jeffrey Reed writes a monthly birding column for the Olean Times Herald. Readers with questions or comments can call him at 557-2327 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)