Saturday, October 21, 2017

Late Summer and Early Fall at the House, Part 1: Mammals and Birds

I live in a wonderful place. When I last reported on the goings-on at our new home, it was the end of July, and I had just experienced the height of summer for the first time here. Since then, late summer and early fall have happened, bringing all sorts of new creatures and natural sights. And I love that I get to settle into this environment while the seasons change.

In mid-August, everything was full and green, and have I mentioned that I love this place?

I just learned, by the way, that the big forested ridge behind our house in this picture (which is across the street from our property) was recently purchased by a local land trust with the goal of conserving the land and eventually transferring ownership to the state to become part of a state forest. I couldn't be happier about the knowledge that this lovely mature forest -- which was the source of singing Veeries and Winter Wrens all summer -- will be protected for the foreseeable future.

By mid-September, the colors were starting to change. The huge Virginia Creeper vines at the edge of our woods (growing mostly on tall Black Cherry trees) changed to a dramatic deep red, making the trees look like they were wearing red leggings:

The Virginia Creepers' color was especially intense from underneath, with sunlight shining through:

Also in September, my sister visited and helped us widen a deer path to make a trail through our small patch of woods. It's a short trail, but it's ours, and it lets us see things like light through the red creeper leaves.

And now, we're deep into fall, with shorter days and colder weather, and we even had our first big frost this past Tuesday morning (making me so very curious to see what this place will look like with snow):

But what about the animals in the past two and a half months, you ask? Well! Allow me to give an update. I have too many things to share for one post, so two posts it will be!


The variety of mammals we've seen on the property has remained rather limited, but there's still a lot of mammalian activity out there. Eastern Chipmunks are all over the place. I had a few glimpses of Gray Squirrels and Red Squirrels on the edges of our property in late summer -- it's so strange to live in a place where squirrels are a rare sighting. In the past month, though, Red Squirrels have become much more active around the house:

And I think I know why.... Someone's been stockpiling Black Walnuts inside the hollowed-out trunk of our driveway apple tree:

(This, by the way, has turned out to be the best of the various old apple trees on the property, with crisp fruit that's great for both eating fresh and baking. What a treat!)

A few times in September, we heard Coyotes howling and yipping way off in the woods. And at least twice so far (once in August, and once in September), a lovely bat has roosted during the day under an eave just outside one of our windows; I'm pretty sure this is a Big Brown Bat, but I could be wrong; either way, I love this little face:

White-tailed Deer have continued to be common visitors in our yard and meadow, although they tend to come and go in waves. For a few days at the beginning of September, the deer were coming to eat fallen apples from the tree right next to the house. (And they're more than welcome to these apples; the tree itself is lovely, but the apples were just not good.) First, a dappled fawn showed up by himself and munched on apples for a good hour or so one afternoon, giving me some great close-up views of this lovely creature:

Look at that super fuzzy tail:

What a handsome baby:

A few days later, more deer showed up to enjoy the apple feast, including this velvet-antlered buck:

His strategy involved working a whole apple in his mouth until it split into smaller pieces:

And he made some pretty funny faces in the process:

Now, these deer are dressed in their sleek and stark winter outfits. (No more velvet for the buck, no more spots for the fawn.) Here's one of the local does in the meadow this past Thursday morning:


Just about as soon as August hit, the bird population on the property started shifting around, first with new birds showing up who likely bred nearby, and then with southbound migrants passing through on their way from their northern breeding groups. Walks in our woods in mid-August let me see a Hooded Warbler (and this looks like just the right kind of shrubby woods where Hooded Warblers might breed):

At the same time, a beleaguered Magnolia Warbler parent was rushing around to feed a constantly-begging fledgling:

Wild Turkeys have wandered through the yard several times (and the best sight, so far, has been watching them take off from the yard and glide low, down across the meadow and away from the house). I heard a Barred Owl calling in the distance on a couple of nights in September. A Pileated Woodpecker has made some impressive holes in a stump in our yard.

Blue Jays were certainly around in the summer -- I heard them, anyway -- but they've been making an increasingly strong presence in the yard in recent weeks, joining the ranks of the other especially common birds in our yard: House Finches, Gold Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, American Crows.

A young, reddening House Finch made a pretty sight in late August among reddening apples:

The White Spruce trees in our yard are packed with cones, and when they started opening at the end of August, the local American Goldfinches swarmed all over them. Here are a couple of goldfinches enjoying the seeds in mid-September:

Nearby, a Chipping Sparrow parent looked like it was doing its best to ignore its begging child (which I had just watched it feed):

The sparrow influx started in late September, with lots of Dark-eyed Juncos especially coming through, and also my first ever Lincoln's Sparrow:

In October, flocks of Eastern Bluebirds started showing up in the meadow. When they first blew in, I watched them thoroughly check out the old Purple Martin house. I guess all the holes made this a very interesting spot!

This morning might have set the record for the most birds in the meadow and yard at once so far. Several juncos were grabbing goldenrod seeds, robins were all over the Pokeweed plants, bluebirds were flying from trees to meadow and back (and snatching some Pokeweed berries, too), and a flock of Pine Siskins showed up, joining the regular finches. Add in a couple of Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Downy Woodpecker, a few Blue Jays, White-throated Sparrows, a Carolina Wren, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and it was quite the crowd.

With all the new faces and activity in the past two and a half months, the overall list of birds seen or heard on the property so far is up to 68 species. That's a pretty great number as far as I'm concerned! And I love that this place is already able to attract so many birds. Looking ahead, I've got a few additions in mind that will hopefully make our property an even better place for birds to live and visit and thrive. :)


The rest of this report -- amphibians, reptiles, insects, etc. -- is coming soon!

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Summer Summary: June and July at Our New Home

What a wonderful whirlwind…. We bought our new house and land (here in Central New York) on June 16, we moved in on June 31, and we’ve been doing all sorts of necessary work to set up the house the way we want it. The work is lengthy and poses all sorts of new challenges for us, but it’s so very rewarding to see things coming together. (We’ll be at this for some time yet. There are so many boxes left to unpack….) All throughout the setting-up/settling-in process, I’ve been getting to know the wildlife in the yard, meadow, and (only very briefly) woods that make up our property. In fact, I haven’t been on any walks in other places since moving in; there’s just been so much to see and explore right here.

I find that I have a lot of things to share. I meant for this to be a short summary with just a few highlights, but it’s turned into a rather lengthy report covering the past month and a half, the bulk of the summer in this one place. So feel free to skim, look at pictures, whatever you like. This is a record of the height of summer in the first year at our new home.


We haven’t seen a wide variety of mammals here so far, but those we have seen tend to be frequent visitors or residents. White-tailed Deer love our meadow, and there’s usually one or more individuals out there in the early morning and late evening, and sometimes at other times of the day as well. Having deer around so much (and having them so easily watchable) has made for some interesting sights. A male deer hunkered down under our solar panels (!) during a rain storm one morning. I turned on the porch light late at night the other day to see two deer with their necks entwined and grooming each other; it was incredibly sweet. A doe yelled at me one afternoon when she -- presumably -- wandered up the meadow and got too close to me before realizing with a start that I was there. I’ve never heard a deer make that sound before, something like a breathy scream, and she kept at it while we both ran to opposite sides of the property (me uphill to try to see what was making that sound, she downhill to get away from me) and stared back at each other. I’ve heard the same sound again a few times since then, and Paul and I wonder if we have a particularly vocal (or perhaps anxious) neighborhood deer.

Groundhogs frequently feed in our yard, and these big rodents are fun to watch as they browse through the low vegetation and single out particular leaves. One groundhog I was watching seemed to have a taste for dandelion leaves, which suits me just fine.

Eastern Chipmunks and Eastern Cottontails are similarly common. There were four baby cottontails in the yard at one point, and there's at least one adult hanging around:

Today, I watched an Eastern Chipmunk climb up into an apple tree, grab a green apple in both of its hands (the apple was small for an apple but still large for a chipmunk) and gnaw it all over. Weird! And speaking of rodents, there’s a strange lack of squirrels here. I had one brief glimpse of a Red Squirrel as it ran down our driveway, but we haven't seen any other squirrels at all.


There are a fantastic number of birds here. I’ve seen/heard 41 species of birds in and around the property so far, which is pretty awesome for just June and July -- that’s a larger number for those months than we've had at any other house we’ve lived in.

I’ve loved getting to know our most common summer resident birds. The House Finches were the first to discover our window feeders -- the day after we put them up, no less! Gold Finches are almost always bouncing across the sky over the meadow; they’ve recently joined the House Finches at the feeders, and a couple of Purple Finches have even joined in, too. Only finches have shown up at the feeders so far… I guess there’s a lack of seed sources out there right now, and the Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice (our most frequent visitors at previous houses) are finding plenty of food in the trees.

Song Sparrows are a constant presence in the yard, and our residents have some pretty cool songs in their repertoire. One of the songs is remarkably similar to an Eastern Towhee song, but I’ve confirmed by sight that it’s actually the Song Sparrow singing, and I haven’t seen any towhees around yet. This sparrow sings: “Drink – your – tea-ea-ea-ea (mumble mumble mumble).” How strange!

Dainty Chipping Sparrows are another constant, and one of our resident Chipping Sparrows has a distinctive white brow-band in front of the usual brown cap:

I’ve seen this sparrow singing, so I assume he’s a male. I like having an individual bird around who I can recognize at sight. The above picture is from July 17. When I saw this bird today, his brown cap was looking pretty sparse; time to molt, I guess:

Gray Catbirds float across the yard and make frequent visits to the heavily laden raspberry patch. (It’s a huge raspberry patch, with way more berries than I and the birds together can eat.) American Robins are always snatching up worms and bugs from one part of the yard or another. Cedar Waxwings are also common. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird frequently perches on one of our power lines. (This place could use some more flowers for hummingbirds; I’ll work on that.)

(Also, I just realized how many of my bird pictures in this post feature a power-line. These lines stretch across right at eye level outside our upstairs balcony, and I'm realizing now that they really are excellently situated for seeing birds up close. Not exactly a natural perch, but I'll take it.)

Tree Swallows were nesting in an old Purple Martin house in the center of the yard when we moved in, but the nest seems to have not been successful, because I never saw any juveniles, and the adults disappeared around the middle of July. The martin house is set up right next to a small ash tree (or more likely, the ash tree has grown up right next to the martin house), and I wonder whether the fact that the tree’s branches brush against the nest entrance might have been a factor in the nest’s failure; I imagine a predator would have pretty easy access to the house. I’m planning to take down the old house later this year (I’m somewhat wary about what I’ll find inside), and I’ll try to find a better location for a nest box next year. I loved having Tree Swallows around earlier in the summer, and I’m sad that they’re no longer here:

Before we bought the house, Eastern Phoebes started a nest right over the front door, and by the time the house became ours, there were phoebe babies in residence. I loved seeing bits of the babies sticking out of the nest, like this stubby tail in late June:

By June 30 (the day before we moved in), the nest was practically overflowing with big baby phoebes:

I was worried that all our necessary activity at the house would disturb the family -- and the parents were certainly not happy with us -- but these stalwart babies stayed put even during the actual move, when a stream of burly men with furniture had to pass right under their nest. Then a couple of days later, we opened the door and four babies erupted from the nest, flying strongly right up into the trees next to the house. The babies didn’t stick around (I miss them), but one or two adult phoebes still frequently hunt in our yard. Yay, phoebes!

Others of our summer birds I know are there because I frequently hear them calling around the house, even if I only see them once in a while. Mourning Doves, Common Yellowthroats, and Veeries have all been singing throughout the summer, although I’ve only seen them a few times each. Winter Wrens also frequently sing from the woods across the road, and it took me a while to place the song because I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one of these birds singing. American Crows frequently call from somewhere in the neighborhood, and they sometimes make some very strange sounds. Blue Jays also often call from nearby, but I haven’t actually seen one in the yard yet.

We’ve only ventured into the woods on our property once so far since moving in (that should tell you how busy we’ve been), so I’ve only gotten a tantalizing glimpse at the birds living in our woods during the summer: an Ovenbird was singing, and a Northern Waterthrush foraged in the small, muddy pond tucked in under the trees.

A few other sightings have been brief and rare, but they still suggest that some really cool birds are living (and hopefully breeding) in the area. A couple of beautiful Black-and-White Warblers have shown up a few times to work over our old apple trees. Male Scarlet Tanagers have passed through our yard. (This summer has given me the closest looks I’ve ever had of both Black-and-White Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers… and I didn’t have my camera with me either time. Sigh.) Wild Turkeys walked through the meadow the other day. Broad-winged Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks have occasionally circled overhead. A male Magnolia Warbler stopped by this morning.

Three juvenile Cooper’s Hawks have been hanging around since last week. They show up every couple of days, and they mostly sit in a dead tree at the corner of the meadow, just generally upsetting all the resident songbirds. Here are two of the three hawks, one above (it posed beautifully like that for a minute or so) and one below:

At one point, I watched one of the young hawks swoop down to the fence in our yard and look around at all the smaller birds yelling at it, like, “Why aren’t you letting me eat you?” Another time, a Gray Catbird was perched in the dead tree with the hawks and yelling at them, and one of the hawks hop-fluttered over to it, but of course the catbird was gone by the time the hawk’s talons landed on the branch. It seems like these young hawks have a lot of practice ahead of them before they get to be fully-grown fearsome hunters. 

Today’s havoc-wreakers were several young Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (I counted at least four) who were barreling through the yard all morning, grabbing food from tree leaves and grooming themselves, but also chasing House Finches, Cedar Waxwings, and Eastern Phoebes. I assume most of these birds were juveniles, but there might have been an adult female in there as well. This grosbeak had a hint of rosy blush on its breast:

And a rosy wash under its wings:

And I don't think I'm imagining a hint of red on the front edge of this grosbeak's wing:

Even in brown costumes, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are very handsome birds.

So, 41 birds so far this summer. And with all these birds, you know what I haven’t seen? House Sparrows and European Starlings. Not a single one (yet).

Reptiles and Amphibians

In terms of variety, we’re pretty slim on the herpetological front so far. The only species of reptile we’ve seen is the Garter Snake, but these snakes seem to have a solid presence around the house, basking on rocks and generally hanging around. We even saw one snake on a high ledge inside the basement at one point. The basement snake was opening and closing its mouth, and a suspicious bulge was moving down its body; perhaps that was the remnant of a small rodent that now won’t be in our house. I’m happy to have snakes around and patrolling!

For amphibians, a hefty American Toad showed up next to the house one day, and a couple of tiny individuals have passed through the yard. I’ve heard Green Frogs and what I now know are Gray Treefrogs calling from somewhere not too far away at night. (At first I thought the short trills I was hearing were toads, but comparisons to online recordings pointed much more clearly to Gray Treefrogs. I’ve never seen one of these frogs before, and I’d love to meet one someday.) A large Red Eft (juvenile Red-spotted Newt) was lounging under some thick vegetation yesterday:

But really, as it turns out, this is the land of Spring Peepers. I saw one adult peeper in late June, and that was very exciting. But then in early July, tiny just-metamorphosed peepers started showing up in the yard, and they’ve been here in significant numbers all month. It’s made mowing the lawn quite a long task, because I have to keep stopping to move peepers out of the way. And to be clear, these are some really tiny peepers!

In the past few days, I’ve started noticing tiny peepers on the windows at night, hunting the miniscule bugs attracted to the indoor lights. Here are two peepers, and the one on the right has just leapt after a bug (look, a peeper tongue!):

I'm really impressed at these little frogs' climbing skills, and I find the smudge marks this one's left on the window incredibly charming:

Last night was something of a peak, with six tiny peepers climbing on the front door's window at once. Can you find all six frogs in this picture?

What a magical fairy-tale land this is, where tiny frogs are some of the most common animals around. I wonder if this is normal for this place, or if there’s been a particular boom in the peeper population in this relatively wet summer. I don’t know, but I’ll take it!

Insects and Others

Oh, there are so many bugs around here that I haven’t tried at all to identify them all. Strange and interesting creatures keep crossing my path, though, so here’s a sampling. 

We came across an absolutely gorgeous Virgin Tiger Moth (Grammia virgo) while walking through the meadow in mid-July:

This big orange weevil is a Rhubarb Weevil (Lixus concavus), and what a coincidence, there was rhubarb near the spot where I found it. (But apparently although it lays eggs in rhubarb stems, it doesn’t actually damage the plant because quick-growing rhubarb crushes the eggs; this weevil more commonly reproduces by using docks and other plants as hosts.)

Here’s a really convincing (and big) wasp-mimic beetle, a Sugar Maple Borer (Glycobius speciosus), with my thumb for scale; this beetle was on our driveway in early July:

Among the butterflies, Tiger Swallowtails are fairly common, as are what I suspect are Pearl Crescents, and at least one species of fritillary. Monarchs are rare, but they are around:


As with the insects, I’ve been taking a haphazard approach to identifying the plants growing on our property; it’ll take a very long while before I have a solid grasp of most of what’s here. Many of the most common flowering plants I’ve identified are non-native (and many are invasive). I pulled and bagged as much Garlic Mustard as I could find early on, but there’s still abundant Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), and Hemp-nettle (Galeopsis species). The bees, at least, seem to love all those flowers, so I don’t feel too bad about their presence for now. And as I push back against these plants in future years I’ll be sure to replace them with as much native flora as I can.

I was happy to find my first orchid on the property, which turns out to be yet another non-native (and sometimes even weedy) plant, Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine). But the idea of a weedy orchid is itself so amazing to me, and I’ve only found a few of these plants on the property so far, that I’m happy to have them stay here:

Again, finding and identifying the native plants on the property will take quite some time, but I’ve found a few prominent populations of native plants so far. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is common and weedy, but I quite like these imposing plants. And bank full of Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and what I’m pretty sure is Thin-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus), all just now coming into bloom (and freed from heavily invading Garlic Mustard last month) is a lovely and welcome find:


I’ve learned so much about this place in the past month and a half. And this is only the summer, and only the first summer of what will hopefully be many years of caring for this property to come. Who knows what challenges and changes and discoveries are still to come!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

My New Habitat

There's been a lot of exciting stuff going on behind the scenes around here, and yesterday afternoon it all finally worked out. We now own a house! And, wonder of wonders, it comes with land. Here's this morning's view of my new habitat:

Our property has about two acres of meadow and about two acres of woods, and it's all surrounded by more woods and fields. I can't believe we get to put down roots in Central New York, and I feel so incredibly lucky to now be able to call this specific place home. It's early, I know, but I already feel like this property is something kind of amazing. I spent two hours there this morning pulling and bagging Garlic Mustard (more tomorrow!) and there was so much wildlife, even just around the house. Tree Swallows are nesting in that old Purple Martin house in the picture, and an Eastern Phoebe has a nest above the front door. A Groundhog was walking its well-worn path across the lawn. A stunning male Indigo Bunting was foraging on some waist-high plants in the tall grass (that's not a bird I'm used to seeing in a yard!), and a Veery was singing from the woods across the street.

This is the start of an exciting new adventure, that's for sure! And there's a lot to do. So if you don't hear from me for a little while, it's probably because I'm off taking care of this place (so it can take care of me, hopefully for a long time to come).

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Baby Robin!

Since discovering the American Robin nest in a trellis in our yard almost two weeks ago, we've done our best to give the incubating mother her space, despite her nest's placement next to the walkway to our cars. Sometimes we forget she's there and walk right under the trellis, inches away from her (oops, sorry!), but she's stoic, and she hasn't yet flushed when we absently invade her space. Anyway, yesterday, we were taking the long way around the trellis when we looked over and saw the mother robin perched on the edge of her nest and looking down into the bowl. Well, that's different. She flew off right afterward, so I walked over and took a quick picture into the nest (phones are so handy!):

There's a little hole! Pipping is happening!

And then today, when I saw that the mother robin was away again, I peeked into the nest and found this brand new baby:

Look at those tiny toes, and a tiny wing, and bulging not-quite-yet eyes! And the way it's all tucked up, it looks like it would still fit in an egg. I can't believe this little creature should be able to leave the nest in just 13 days, let alone become a sleek adult robin some time after that. And I wonder why this family only has the one chick, when 3-5 eggs is the more typical count for robins.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for this little guy or girl. Good luck, trellis robins!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Two Walks: Visiting a Bog, Plus a Few Reptiles and Amphibians

On Friday afternoon, I went to check out the O.D. von Engeln Preserve. This Nature Conservancy property has some interesting glacial formations and a variety of habitats, including a bog, which as I understand it is pretty unusual for this area. I don't get many chances to explore bogs, and I very much enjoyed the path through this part of the preserve:

The bog was filled with big and beautiful flowers from the Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea). How does one plant get to eat bugs and have such amazing blooms?

These are some weird flower structures -- fitting, I suppose, for a plant as strange as a pitcher plant:

In another part of the preserve, this small Garter Snake was basking in a sunny patch on the forest floor:

I'm hoping to return to this place in the coming months to see what other interesting flowers might show up. Bogs are fun!

This morning, Paul and I went for a walk at the Roy H. Park Preserve, where we met this creature on the path:

A little Common Snapping Turtle! It's got the long tail and spiked shell of a snapper, but it's just a baby monster as yet:

Hello, little monster, you are very cute:

This morning's walk also featured a singing Blackburnian Warbler and Indigo Bunting (both too far away for my camera), and a small American Toad crossing the path:

I love that it's the time of year when reptiles and amphibians are common, and new wildflowers are appearing seemingly all the time. Summer is on its way!