A Year in the Yard

Back in January 2011, I decided I would spend the next year trying to find as many birds as possible on my property during the year. During the previous year I had recorded 149 species, annoying close to the 150 mark. To find 150 species in my yard during the year would be a tremendous feat, considering I don’t live next to an large bodies of water and no streams run through my property, both of which would be helpful when looking for birds. A total of 149 is very close to 150, so one more would seem easy, but 2010 was a particularly awesome and bird-filled year. With 14 species of sparrows, 25 warblers, several flocks of shorebirds that held some interesting species, and uncommon species like Olive-sided Flycatcher and Bicknell’s Thrush (flight call) 2010 would be tough to beat. But I decided to try anyway.

I may be using the term yard a little too loosely. My “yard” is a 65-acre property in southern Monroe County, Pennsylvania. It is situated on top of a small ridge just north of the famous Kittatinny Ridge and includes habitats such as maple/oak/hickory forest, an old hay field, a small pond, shrub, and a small meadow. When I use the term “yard” this is what I’m referring to. Of my entire “yard” list, I have seen about 85% of the species from the actual area right around my house.

The birding year started off on January 1 with a walk around the house and the field (the old hay field) across the street. My first bird of the year was an American Goldfinch at the thistle feeder. Not long after, nine more goldfinches, a small group of House Finches, and a single Pine Siskin joined it at the feeders. While walking around outside, I noted many of the common species. A Great Blue Heron even glided low over the field before heading down to the valley. On the 7th, I heard my first owl, a Great Horned hooting somewhere in the distance, and around the middle of January, birding seemed to pick up. Some more uncommon birds showed up around the house: Common Ravens, Brown Creeper, and even two Common Redpolls, a surprise in a year with relatively few winter finches.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron on January 1


On the last day of February, my mom and I heard the distinctive pzeenting of three American Woodcocks in the field. My family and I are blessed with these elusive creatures every year, and their funny looks and odd calls always put smiles on our faces. As if the woodcock was a signal for the early migrants to move, other species soon began to show up. Large flocks of Snow Geese moved overhead, while smaller flocks of American Pipits and Rusty Blackbirds gathered and occasionally flew past the house.

Slowly but surely, spring migrants arrived and filled the yard with a sweet chorus of birdsong. I reached 100 species on April 26, with a visiting Savannah Sparrow in the field. This species is rather uncommon in the spring on the property, so finding one was nice, although I was sure to see one or more later in the year.

The ultimate yard-birding day of the 2011 came on May 8–right in the height of spring migration. Exhausted from birding the day before, I actually “slept in” until 6am, which is usually unheard of from me on weekends in May. Nevertheless, I had a nice rest and did not go owling or listening for nocturnal migrants. However, as soon as I stepped outside and heard about five species of warblers singing in the trees near the house, I grabbed my binoculars and kicked myself for sleeping in. Warblers were everywhere! Warblers and other migrant songbirds usually seem to stick to forest edges during most days in spring, but this was different. Several Northern Parulas and Worm-eating Warblers were foraging in the forest. One Worm-eater was even grabbing worms from the ground! At the small meadow I mentioned earlier in the post, I found a Red-breasted Nuthatch, a rather late one at that, foraging on a dead pine tree. After an hour or so of birding the woods, the birds quieted down. I headed back to the house, content with the 50 or so species I had seen in such a short amount of time. But when I go closer to the house, I realized that the birds had just moved closer to the house! I stood yards from the house and picked up species like crazy over the course of half an hour. While the warblers, tanagers, and orioles filled the trees, the raptors started flying and filling the sky.

Worm-eating Warbler foraging on the ground

At one point there were so many birds that I just put down the binoculars and started. Wow. That is when I heard an unfamiliar song. I had heard it on a tape somewhere, but it was definitely something I wasn’t used to. I followed the intriguing song to a patch of young aspens along the forest edge just up the hill from my house. After a bit of searching, I finally spotted the bird, a gorgeous Wilson’s Warbler. I had only seen this species once before on the property and that was only a brief glimpse of a drab individual in the fall. This bird was stunning and he continued to sing throughout the entire morning.

Wilson's Warbler on my "big day"

The migrant excitement eventually ended around noon. I was amazed at the diversity as well as the incredible number of birds present in such a small area, like 8 Scarlet Tanagers and 12 Baltimore Orioles in a single apple tree! As I was wrapping up the walk around the yard to get some lunch, I heard one more species, a Common Loon. This species often calls as it flies overhead, but this is the first time I have had a “heard-only” loon while birding a completely forested area. After a day of intense birding, I managed to find an incredible 77 species, a new one-day record in the yard!

Northern Parula

Northern Parula in a blooming apple tree

I tried to do a big sit on the next Saturday, but that was what you might call an “epic fail.” It rained for the entire day. I DID find some excellent birds (including an freaking awesome, but totally unprecedented fly-over Black-crowned Night-Heron), but the cold, overcast, rain, fog, and mist made the 21 hours I spent sitting in one spot rather uncomfortable. On the 25th of May an incredibly loud Eastern Whip-poor-will woke me up way earlier than I wanted to, but it was an awesome bird that I had not had in the yard since 2007.

The summer months were slow. Nothing new showed up in June or July. The regular breeders were around in good numbers, though. Prairie Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Field Sparrows dominated the fields, while Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Red-eyed Vireos took control of the woods. One species of note was a Northern Parula that showed up on June 30, a bird I had never seen here during the summer.

The middle of August brought the next wave of birds, as the earliest migrants began moving through. A large group of swallows sitting on the power lines and the barn held four Cliff Swallows (year bird), but 52 Barn Swallows, 30 Tree Swallows, a Bank Swallow, and one Northern Rough-winged Swallow weren’t too shabby either.

a few of the swallows on August 13


close up of one of the Cliff Swallows

The Great Monroe County Snipe Hunt, a local birding competition, was held on October 1, so Stephen Kloiber and I birded around my yard and some other nearby areas for a good portion of the day. We had an epic morning of nocturnal flight calls with 19 species detected in flight, but we also heard Great Horned and Barred Owls. Among those overhead calls were some year birds like a Green Heron and a new yard bird, a Short-billed Dowitcher that gave a nice tututu call low overhead. We managed to spot some nice raptors from my yard later in the day. Eight Ospreys flew past as did a stunning male Northern Harrier. We managed to win the competition!

As I have for several years now, I did the Bird Watcher’s Digest big sit on October 9. Stephen Kloiber again accompanied me at midnight, although the flight calls were not nearly as numerous as the beginning of the month. With a total of seven birders helping out throughout the day, no bird went unnoticed. We had three owl species, an excellent way to start off. Eventually, especially a few hours after midnight, birds started trickling overhead. Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes were easy, but then Savannah, White-throated, Song, and Grasshopper Sparrows called and made the listening more intense, but even more fun. Morning birding (once the sun came up) was excellent, we had four warbler species, the most I’ve had on this event. The Swamp and Lincoln’s Sparrows that showed up during the day were added bonuses to the great list we already had. The afternoon brought raptors, especially the Sharp-shinned Hawks for which our big sit team is named–The Shadow Mountain Sharp-shins. Eighty-nine of these small hawks passed over with numerous Bald Eagles, American Kestrels, Merlins, and even one Peregrine Falcon. We finished with 68 species, only two short of the record set two years before.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow, one of many sparrow species seen in 2011

After picking up a few new birds during the big sit, I was at 147 species for 2011. So close to 150, but migration was practically over. What was I missing? A good list of birds that were now impossible were glaring blank spots on the list. A few new species were still possible, but it would be tough. On the October 23, I found a single White-crowned Sparrow in the brush outside my bedroom window. #148. Now I was one away from matching my old record. Bird #149 was an immature Golden Eagle that passed directly over the house on the last day of October. I was tied with my record. Could I find one more species?

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle flying directly over my house

On November 5, I realized I hadn’t heard any owls in the yard in quite a while, so I decided to try for the common species: Barred, Great Horned, and Eastern Screech. After no response from the expected species, I decided to call for a Northern Saw-Whet Owl. I wasn’t entirely sure calling would even evoke a response from this tiny owl species if one was in the area, but it was worth a shot. I played a recording, then even whistled some of my own toots. As I was ready to give up I heard it–#150. From the cedar stand on the other side of the field, a saw-whet responded with about six toot calls; then it stopped, never to call again that evening. Sweet!

Even though I birded throughout November and December (except the time I was traveling), I was not able to find anything new after the owl. It didn’t matter, I had reached my goal and record of 150 species in the yard during a single calendar year. With a bit of luck and some winter finches, maybe 2012 will bring 151!