Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Midsummer (Mostly) Birds and Insects

These past few weeks have been warm and (often) sunny, and definitely summer. July has been a time of incredible firefly shows (especially earlier in the month), lots of fledgling birds, and quickly-growing gardens. There's been a lot to see so far this summer!

On July 1, the baby Black-capped Chickadees in one of our nest boxes were starting to look a bit more like birds, but still quite alien-like with those huge pale beaks:


I didn't peek in on the chickadees after that, but they seem to have successfully fledged, and hopefully all is well!

The Eastern Phoebe family has had great success with their second nest of the season, above our front door. The eggs started hatching on July 1, and by July 2 there were five larval phoebes in the nest:


On July 8, the babies were already looking pretty crowded:
 

Throughout all this, the adult phoebes continued to be just the best parents. The mother stood guard over the nest at night, even while we turned on the porch light and took the dog out for his nighttime business (I took this picture from a distance, doing my best not to disturb her any more than we already were):
 

By July 15, the phoebe babies were alert and moving around (and so very crowded), and we switched to using the back door so we wouldn't startle them out of their nest too early:
 

Here's another view of these frumpy babies trying very hard to look like just more moss and mud:
 

And when they were 18 days old, the babies left the nest. Wonderfully, they've stuck around, so we still get to see phoebes fairly frequently. A few days ago, I watched all five babies line up in a row on a branch, mouths open, while one of the parents came by with a tasty dragonfly. And earlier today I saw the family foraging in the yard -- some of the youngsters were even making a few hunting attempts themselves, although it still looked like the adults were doing most of the work.

Lots of other baby birds have been around, too. Here's a juvenile Chipping Sparrow on July 13, perched on a trellis we put in the vegetable garden this year and which has become a surprisingly popular spot for young birds to sit and preen and forage:
 

I saw this rather scruffy-looking baby Chestnut-sided Warbler on July 15:


I love these little birds, and I'm sure this young one will be very handsome one day:
 

The mother Chestnut-sided Warbler was also foraging nearby, her costume providing surprisingly good camouflage among the already-fading leaves of this apple tree:
 

A family of Indigo Buntings (with at least two youngsters) has been hanging around the meadow and yard, and while I haven't yet managed to get a picture of the babies or female, I did catch the male singing from a goldenrod perch in the meadow on July 18:
 

And a Common Yellowthroat family has been hanging around as well. I've almost gotten used to hearing these birds' chirps as they forage in the brushy areas of the yard while I work in the garden, which is amazing. Here's one of the juveniles on July 18:
 

And here's another angle on the same young bird, with its definitely yellow throat:
 

This year has also been especially good for our local Brown-headed Cowbirds, since it seems that these birds were able to successfully parasitize several nests on and around our property. In addition to our Eastern Phoebe's first nest of the season (which produced two phoebes and one cowbird), this summer I've also seen juvenile cowbirds being fed by a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Veery, and a Red-eyed Vireo. These cowbirds sure seem to have their tricky child-rearing methods figured out!

July has brought many other interesting sights as well, besides baby birds. I was happy to see an American Goldfinch feeding on Lance-leaved Coreopsis seeds in the meadow on July 23:


Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is blooming in the meadow for the first time this year (we scattered this plant's seeds in late fall of 2017), and these mounds of pale purple flowers are set off so nicely by the sea of Black-eyed Susans that are the most numerous flowers in this part of the meadow:


These blossoms are so fancy up close, with so many frills and fringes and curls:


And these flowers are definitely living up to their other common name, Bee Balm, since I almost always see bees on these plants; here's a fuzzy bumblebee visiting these equally fuzzy flowers:


At the edges of the meadow and yard, I've been happy to see lots of Fringed Loosestrife plants with their bright yellow flowers:
 

The small flower bed I planted with Purple Coneflower (and other things) in 2017 has become a hotspot for flying pollinators, as well as creatures who hunt those insects. A Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia, I think) was staking out the coneflowers for a few days, and I like how well this spiky white-and pink creature fits in with the spiky pink-and-white flowers (seen here on July 26):
 

Here's another scene with this spider on July 24 -- sharp, secretive, and now that I'm looking at it again, almost dance-like:


Here's a new butterfly for me, a Milbert's Tortoiseshell, who visited the marigolds at this same flower bed on July 24 before flying away surprisingly well on its very damaged wings:
 

On July 23, I nearly dismissed what looked like a dried leaf on our deck -- all curled and discolored, with its stem sticking up into the air -- until I looked through binoculars and realized it was a Mourning Cloak butterfly:


I don't know that I've ever seen a more perfect Mourning Cloak before, and I was able to get a better (and more recognizably butterfly-ish) view of this beautiful creature from above:
 

I planted two Spicebush plants in our yard a couple of years ago, and on July 24 I was excited to find our first tiny Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars! Many of the leaves had little folded-over leaf tents, and this caterpillar inhabitant had come out to browse on the leaf:


The caterpillar doesn't look like much here, but I'm already enjoying seeing these little creatures grow into their larger and more fantastical forms -- no more pictures yet, but I will share more at some point.

This July has also been a great time for dragonflies. Since I learned to identify Blue Dasher dragonflies earlier this year, I've seen these handsome creatures all over. I know I already shared a picture of a female (or possibly young male) Blue Dasher, but I just love this dragonfly's stripes and its rainbow of muted colors, so here's another individual in the meadow on July 18:


Several male Common Whitetails were perching on rocks in the meadow on July 23, and this one let me come quite close for a picture:


And this Eastern Pondhawk (a female or young male) in the yard on July 24 impressed me with its bright green colors:


Summer brings so many sights!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

June Families and More

So much of June seems to be about babies. Many of my sightings these past few weeks have revolved around nests and eggs and growing creatures, many of them building on processes that started back in May. I have other sights to share, too, but let's start with the babies!

First, to recap where we left off in my last post (on June 5): an Eastern Bluebird pair had built and then abandoned a nest in one of our nest boxes; our Eastern Phoebe pair raised a Brown-headed Cowbird chick and had two of their own babies still in the nest under our back deck; and a pair of Tree Swallows had eggs in our second nest box.

Let's follow up with the phoebes first. I'm so very impressed with these two parents and all they've accomplished so far this year. With the cowbird chick gone but two young phoebes still in the nest and depending on their parents to feed them, on June 6 the mother phoebe started building a second nest in the old spot over our front door (where she's had a nest for at least the past two years)! I imagined her saying to her mate -- about feeding their kids in the back -- "you've got this, right?", as she took on the major project of putting together a new nest. And they did it! The two baby phoebes under the deck got bigger and fledged around June 14, and during that time the female phoebe finished constructing the second nest and started laying eggs. She ended up with five eggs (her second clutch of five eggs this year) in this beautiful moss-covered nest:
 

Now the female phoebe is focusing on incubation. She typically flies off of the nest when we go through the front door during the day -- we have to walk right underneath her, after all, and with a dog no less -- but she returns to the nest quickly, and she stays steadfast in her spot when we pass underneath at night. Really, I feel like these are just about the best phoebe parents there are, and I hope all continues to go well with this second nest!

The Tree Swallows are also having a great year. On June 18, I peeked into their nest box and found six babies crammed in among all those fancy feathers lining the nest (there are five faces on the right side in this picture, and one more set of wings facing the opposite direction on the left):


And now the nestlings are wide-eyed and (presumably) fully feathered, and they spend their time peering out of the nest box hole while the adult swallows swoop almost constantly above the meadow, scooping bugs out of the air and shuttling them to their waiting kids. The nestlings have been hanging out at the entrance hole for a few days now, and they seem to be in no rush to leave the nest box. Here's one of the young Tree Swallows this afternoon:
 

And here comes Mom... get ready...


Food! Yum.


These Tree Swallows have taken their time at every stage of the breeding process this year, first in settling on the nest box, then building the nest, and now in actually leaving the box. And I'm not complaining! I love having these beautiful bug-eating birds around, and I know they'll probably become less frequent visitors once the babies finally do leave the nest.

The first nest box -- the one that the Eastern Bluebirds claimed and then left -- has brought a wonderful surprise. On June 11, I looked into the box and found that Black-capped Chickadees had added a soft fur lining into the cup of the bluebirds' abandoned nest, and there were five perfect, tiny, speckled chickadee eggs inside:


I'm very excited that our nest box is helping to make more chickadees! Here are the nestlings (a day or two old?) on June 24 -- I think these little blobs are almost equally gross and adorable, and I suspect the "adorable" part comes almost entirely from the fact that I know they will someday be chickadees:
 

Yesterday (June 28), the babies were rather spiky, with all those feathers poking out; I'm looking forward to seeing them when they actually start to look more like birds:


The adult chickadees are very stealthy, and I hardly ever see them going to the nest box. (That's probably why I didn't even know they were making a nest in there until I looked and found eggs.) Here's a quick sighting of one of the parents today (while I was taking pictures of the Tree Swallows next door) -- this parent is leaving the nest box carrying a fecal sac, which it will throw away somewhere else:
 

Several other birds have also been making families in and around our yard. American Robins reused a nest they (or different robins) built under our solar panels last year. Here's an adult on the nest on June 4:


I don't know for sure whether this robin nest was successful, but there were babies, they got bigger, and now the nest is empty again. I hope they made it out safely; this is such an exposed spot for a nest, and the babies would be easy pickings for any flying or climbing predators.

Dark-eyed Juncos must have had a nest somewhere around here, because three young juncos have been hanging around our yard for about a week now. These stripey brown birds don't look much like adult juncos, but they do have that distinctive white-striped tail:


And here's the rest of the nesting activity I know about: Gray Catbirds built a nest in a shrubby area next to our house, but the plants there have grown taller and I can't see the nest anymore, so I don't know whether it's still in use. Mourning Doves built a nest (a pile of twigs, really) in the apple tree next to our driveway, but they moved on after we walked by and startled them too many times. Chipping Sparrows built a nest in a conifer in our back yard, and although I haven't seen any further activity in that particular spot, I did see a Chipping Sparrow carrying food recently, so it must have babies around here somewhere. Some sort of large dark bird -- I suspect American Crow, although I was never able to tell for certain -- was using a nest at the top of a tall White Pine in our woods. A young Common Grackle has been showing up at our feeder in the past couple of days. And a pair of Common Yellowthroats acts upset when I walk past a particular corner of the meadow. All together, that's 12 species of birds that I know have at least tried to breed in or around our property (and with all the birds that are regulars in our yard, I'm sure there are more). It's busy around here!

As for non-bird breeding, baby Groundhogs and their mother have been hanging out in the same area as last year's Groundhog family -- I guess our yard makes a good Groundhog nursery. And I was surprised and delighted on June 26 to see frog tadpoles (I don't know what species) in the shallow pond in our woods for the first time:


The past few weeks have brought many other interesting sights as well. On the morning of June 4, I watched a very puffy Chipping Sparrow trilling from its perch in a tree:


Sing it, sparrow:


On the afternoon of June 14, several very pretty insects were flying in the sunlight along the meadow path. Here's a fancy butterfly, a Little Wood-satyr:


And a male and female of some species of (I think) Azure (genus Celastrina):


And a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis):


With a female Blue Dasher not far away:
 

On June 26, a male Black-and-White Warbler (looking like he could use a fresh molt soon) worked his way through several trees in our yard, singing the whole time:
 

And almost as much as I loved seeing the purple spikes of Wild Lupine flowers in the meadow, I now love seeing those same spikes with fuzzy gray seed pods:
 

And now June is coming to a close, and it's fully summer. I'll keep checking on the nests around our house, and I'll keep watching for other new and interesting things in this amazing place!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Basically All of Spring: Part 2

Here are the rest of my sightings from our house since mid-March, continued from the previous post!

More Birds 
 
We've had a lot of nesting drama this spring. First, pair of Eastern Bluebirds developed a strong interest in one of our nest boxes. Here's a female bluebird visiting the box on March 15; I think she looks very pretty backlit by the morning sun:


The pair eventually went for it, and the female built a large (towering, really) nest with grass and lots of pine needles. Here's the finished nest on April 29:


The male was around, too, chasing off other birds and generally keeping an eye on things. Here he is on April 30:


On May 4, I found a single blue egg in the nest:


And then that was the end of the bluebirds' nesting attempt here! A week later, the nest still only had the one egg, and the adults seemed to have disappeared. Sometime after that, the egg was gone and the nest untidy. I'm not sure what happened or why the bluebirds left, but at least this all happened early in the season, and hopefully one or both of them will still have time to make another go at nesting this year.

The Eastern Phoebes seemed to consider putting a nest over our front door again this year (as they have for at least the past two years), but in a surprise twist, the female phoebe built her nest on some electrical conduit under our back deck instead. The first egg appeared in the nest on May 2, and all seemed well and normal until I peeked into the nest on May 9 and saw an unusually large and speckled egg tucked in among the pearly white phoebe eggs -- a Brown-headed Cowbird had found the nest:


Brown-headed Cowbirds are native birds that don't build any nests of their own, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, usually to the detriment of their hosts' actual brood. My first reaction on seeing this egg was disappointment, because I love phoebes, and it's been such a joy to see them raise their babies in previous years. But there's really nothing to be done; besides the fact that it's illegal to mess with native birds' eggs (without proper permits), there are all sorts of other reasons why it's a bad idea to remove a cowbird egg (see this site for a bunch of interesting points). So with all that in mind, I decided to view this nest as a chance to watch weird nature at work. I'd never gotten to actually see a cowbird being raised by host parents, after all. And, in the end, everything has worked out rather well (so far), which I suspect is mainly because these two adult phoebes are master hunters and excellent providers for their young dependents. I see the two of them snatching up bugs in our yard and meadow almost constantly. Here's one of the parents in a bush near the nest on May 16:


The cowbird was the first to hatch, on May 20:


I worried for a while that the phoebe eggs wouldn't hatch at all, but on May 25 (with the cowbird baby already six days old), the first phoebe baby appeared (wow, look at that size difference):


By May 29, only two of the phoebe eggs had hatched, and those two nestlings were pretty well dwarfed by the hulking cowbird baby:


And when I checked the nest on May 31 (only 11 days after hatching!), the cowbird had departed, and the two phoebes had the nest to themselves:


When I checked again yesterday, the two phoebe babies were still growing and doing fine. It's true that two phoebes is significantly fewer than the five original eggs, and some of that loss may have been because of the cowbird, but two phoebes is still better than no phoebes (which was another possible outcome), so I call this a win. Overall, I'm super impressed with these phoebe parents, who raised a cowbird nestling to fledging while also incubating and feeding their own babies. They deserve an award.

After a long period of indecision, a pair of Tree Swallows also took up residence in our second nest box, and that nest is going strong, with the first egg appearing in the nest on May 24. I love having these beautiful birds here, making their bubbling sounds and swooping around our meadow. I also appreciate how relatively amiable this particular pair of Tree Swallows is; these birds sit politely at their box while I work in my garden not too far away, whereas I've met Tree Swallows in other places who dive-bombed me for walking by at a further distance. Here's our pair at their box, the female peeking out of the entrance hole, and the male in his typical perch on top of the box:


Other birds are starting to nest in our yard, too, but these attempts are in their earliest stages, so I'll hold off on reporting about them until I know more.

Finally, this spring has brought an exciting bird milestone: We reached 100 species on the list of birds we've seen/heard on our property! Bird #98 was a Double-crested Cormorant who flew overhead (a pretty strange bird for a yard more than 10 miles from the nearest lake). Bird #99 was a group of Common Nighthawks who hunted over our meadow and woods for several evenings at the end of May, making their weird honking calls the whole time (what an awesome sight):


Bird #100 was a Mourning Warbler -- also a totally new bird for me -- who popped into our yard briefly near the end of May. 100 species of birds... wow. And we won't stop there! This place continues to amaze me.

Amphibians

We got to see several amphibians this spring. On the night of April 8, we went in search of the very loud Spring Peepers we were hearing, and after some careful searching we successfully spotted a few of these tiny frogs calling at the small pond (more of a large puddle really) in our woods. And then when we returned to the house, of course, who should be waiting at our front door, out in the open and easy to see, but a Spring Peeper. Oh well! I love these little frogs, regardless of whether we go looking for them or they come to us:
 

The night of April 12 was warm and rainy, and we spent some time shepherding peepers and Spotted Salamanders across our road. Unfortunately, several of these creatures had died trying to cross, but we made sure that at least a few got to the other side safely. Spotted Salamanders are wonderful, and I love getting to see them out and about on these early spring amphibian nights:


On May 16, I was surprised to find a Red-backed Salamander in our basement; it had crawled inside the warm, humid stand where I was starting seedlings for the garden. I find these salamanders fairly frequently in our woods, but transporting this individual outside was a great opportunity to admire it up close. Sooo cute:


Plants

Here are a few wildflower sightings to round out this spring summary. On April 7, eager for any signs of growing things, I admired the tiny new leaves of Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) in our meadow; this is second-year growth from seeds we scattered in 2017:
 

By May 26, these plants had become glorious mounds of greenery, with spires of purple/blue flowers:


I expected the lupine blossoms to be beautiful from afar (and they are), but I didn't know that these flowers would also have intricate and subtle markings up close:


The diversity of spring wildflowers in our woods is somewhat limited, but they're out there. I was happy to catch this Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) in bloom on May 4:


Likewise with this Starflower (Trientalis borealis) on May 24:


An Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) I planted last year produced beautiful ribbon-y blossoms this sping; here's a picture of these flowers from May 4:


And on May 29, the many hawthorn trees in our woods were covered with blossoms (many more than I saw on these trees last year):


And finally, although it's not a native plant, I can't stop admiring the blossoms on Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), which is common in all the spots in our yard where I haven't mowed:


And that's most of spring! There's still a lot of growing (for plants and animals) ahead in the upcoming months, but the wild rush is mainly over. I'm excited to see what happens next!