Can you find something positive to remember about this summer, despite the lockdown and the quarantine? I shall remember this as the summer we rediscovered hummingbirds.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.
We were talking and my wife suddenly stood with her mouth open, staring out into our distant hayfield. “That looks like orange butterfly weed!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with surprise.
March sneaks up on me. I still consider it the beginning of nature’s year when the earliest spring birds and flowers appear. But now there’s a somber side to nature’s awakening—an odd, empty feeling, like waking up to discover I forgot to set the alarm clock. Time has passed while I’ve been snoozing. What did I miss and why is it so quiet?
People might say a crow is a crow, but in the Potomac and Shenandoah Valley, when you see a crow it could be one of three different species. By far, the most common is the American crow, followed by the slightly smaller Fish crow. Occasionally a Northern raven will join them. All three species nest here and can be seen all year. But they’re more evident and easier to see in winter.
The caravan of cars reached the top of South Mountain. A couple-dozen riders emerged into the night, bundled into parkas and wearing winter coats. As we inhaled crisp November air, our ears were blasted with a continuous amplified recording that sounded like a big truck backing up.
On our wall hangs an ammunition poster printed in the 1940s featuring a crouched rabbit and ten Bobwhite quail. Painted by sporting artist Lynn Bogue Hunt, it celebrates bygone days when hunting was a favorite fall pastime.
The whistled call, “Bob-White,” is seldom heard here anymore. But that may be about to change. Interested farmers and landowners in Virginia and West Virginia now have an opportunity to bring the cheerful little quail back to their original habitat.
I saw my first rough-winged swallow when I was a teenager fishing along a creek in western Pennsylvania. I thought it wasn’t much to look at. It had a graceful swallow shape, but otherwise it was plain and dull. Skimming low over water catching insects along with other swallows, a rough-wing lacks their polished plumage and contrasting, iridescent colors. The back, head, and wings are wood-brown and the throat is drab, shading to gray on the chest and sides. The belly is a dirty, brownish white. Only the undertail feathers are dazzling white. The black, shiny bill looks very short, even for a swallow.
A sign beside Route 45 says: “1.5 miles north is Swan Pond Manor, a 2,000-acre retreat set aside in 1745 for use of Thomas Lord Fairfax, once the proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia who established an estate at Greenway Court, Frederick County in 1738. So named because wild swans inhabited [the] site.”
John James Audubon was a French immigrant who adopted nineteenth-century America as his home. Early on, he resolved to roam the country hunting and drawing birds. “Audubon” has become synonymous with birds and conservation, but few today appreciate his indefatigable genius.
Several inches of snow blanketed the ground when I went to the barn to feed the animals. Snow stuck to every branch, stem, and twig, but my eye caught a glimpse of movement in the buffer of trees along the stream. Ducking behind the barn to avoid detection, I glimpsed a red fox about to spring into the air and pounce on a mouse.
Once common throughout the United States, river otters were heavily trapped during the nineteenth century when tall hats were in style for classy European and American gentlemen. Beaver and otter felt was the standard material for such hats. Otter became the ultimate standard for durability against which all other furs were compared.
Eastern meadowlarks used to be common birds in local hayfields. Now they’re on a growing list of field-nesting birds—bobwhite quail, vesper sparrow, American kestrel, and red-winged blackbird—whose numbers have seriously dropped. Now you can drive though the countryside and never see any of them.
Wood thrush song sounds like cathedral organ music to me. Muted by distance, it’s even sweeter. It invokes childhood evenings in June seated on a porch step, enchanted by an unknown birdsong coming from the neighbor’s woods.
For over 20 years, my wife and I have wanted purple martins to nest where we lived. We bought books about attracting martins. I set up a wooden, three-story purple martin house with the proper measurements and studied the best places to attract the birds. I made white-painted gourd houses, hung them from a telescoping pole the proper height above the ground, and installed a baffle to deter climbing raccoons and other predators.