“Snowpril” Birding

I had thought we had seen the last of winter weeks ago, and temperatures in the 50s to near 80 degrees over the last many weeks was the norm. Migration was really starting to crank up in PA with many species of warblers arriving, orioles and grosbeaks showing up and some hummers making an appearance. All the fruit trees in Somerset County were in full bloom and the last thing on my mind was snow… Then I heard the forecast 6-8 inches… What!?! Well the 6-8″ slowly increased to 10-12″ in the forecast.  Well, once I realized that this was really going to hit us, we quickly prepared by making sure all the feeders were stocked, and that extra suet and orange slices were out for the warblers and orioles that had just arrived. On Sunday night (4/22) around 11pm the snow started. It was a heavy wet snow; by Monday morning we had about 5-7″ north of Somerset PA and a few miles from here on Laurel Mountain, about 14″. I was hoping to see the feeders packed with good birds brought in by the snow, but things were slow. Out the front window I could see groups of Pipits in our driveway in the patches of gravel where the snow had melted. I decided to run out to check my Somerset Lake route and the roadsides along the local farm fields.

American Pipits in my driveway

Not much in the way of waterfowl at Somerset, but there was a ton of pipits! They were all over the mud flats on the north side of the lake. All the snow had pushed them out of the fields and to the roadsides or where ever there were open areas for them to feed. Some coots that were there looked pretty miserable, their backs covered in snow. It was snowing so hard, you could barely see them through the falling flakes.

Group of Coots at Somerset Lake, note the snow on their backs

Roadside birding during the storm was not as productive as I had hoped. Early in the day birds were pretty hunkered down, and not until after work did I see birds other than simply Pipits and Robins. That evening there were large groups of Savannah Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Pipits, Horned Larks, Killdeer, Meadowlarks, and many others lining the roads. It was snowing so hard at that point I felt bad driving through and scaring them up. Later that evening I saw a group of sparrows just down the road from the end of my driveway. Trish and I went over to see them and among the other sparrows was a Henslow’s Sparrow! Wow, an almost yard bird…Yes, I could have stretched it since I first saw it from the yard, or run back to the edge of the yard and tried to see it again with the scope, but it was snowing hard enough I didn’t. I’m sure I could have seen a sparrow in about the same spot, but why stretch it… Anyway, I will have to wait for another one! At the point we saw the Henslow’s Sparrow it was late enough that they would fly up and go into the snow, disappearing beneath it into grass clumps sticking through the snow. I have seen this often in the past (see this post, and scroll to yellow-rumped warbler pic). The Henslow’s spooked to the edge of the field and did the same thing. I had a brief second to snap this picture before it too disappeared.

Henslow's Sparrow perching briefly before going under the snow!

Two Savannah Sparrows perched roadside, they were the third most common species

The next day the snow started to melt some. Storm totals across the county ranged from 5″ to almost 2 feet! Near our house on Laurel Summit the storm total was 23.2″! Many birds were still along the roadsides in the morning before the fields cleared too much. The most common roadside bird after American Robin and Chipping Sparrow, was Savannah Sparrow.  I bet we saw over 50! Also, I saw more Vesper Sparrows in the short time we were combing the roads than I have seen in a long time!

Vesper Sparrow feeding on the edge of the road

A lot of snow in Somerset County, 23.2" the highest total recorded!

My wife and I also checked a local wetland that morning, but much of the open water was frozen. The Wilson’s Snipe were all huddled into any open areas they could find. A few other shorebirds were also along a small creek channel coming into one of the frozen pools. Lesser Yellowlegs, Least and Solitary were among them. Several very cold Tree Swallows were perched around; one female bird seemed like it was all she could do to cling to the nest box hole. She did not even move while I walked by only a few feet from her. Her mate, perched above her on a tree branch and just sat there all puffed out too.

Solitary Sandpiper in an open patch of water

Wilson's Snipe jumping from one open patch to the next

A very cold looking Tree Swallow clinging to the hole in her nest box

As Trish and I left the wetland, a Sandhill Crane flew overhead and landed in a snowy field. This bird has been here all spring and is likely one of the birds that has bred here in the past. The reddish coloration of its feathers is from preening iron-rich mud at this site into its feathers. All in all, I was surprised how well some of the birds did during the storm. My feeders were not as busy as I hoped, only Chipping Sparrows in big numbers, and no warblers or orioles. In fact the few warblers I did see seemed fine. Two Yellow Warblers feeding near the house seemed like nothing at all was wrong as they ate midges off the snow and out of the branches! The swallows on the other hand did not look well at all and seemed in rough shape. One Robin’s eggs in our yard hatched the day before the snow. I’m not sure of the fate of her nest yet, but there was not much to eat during the storm and it was very cold for newly hatched chicks. I will say this. She was one devoted mom sitting there totally covered in snow.

This is one storm I will sure remember, and although not everything I hoped it might be as far as “good birds” brought into my feeders from the storm, it was still a good few days of birding!

Greater Sandhill Crane