Friday, December 7, 2018

Evening Grosbeaks!

The word is that this winter will be a good irruption year for northern finches. Basically, because of food shortages or other factors, various fancy northern birds are wandering farther south than they usually do, which means an increased chance of unusual visitors in the Northeastern US. Since November, I've been hearing reports of Evening Grosbeaks showing up in our Central New York county with some frequency. Evening Grosbeaks are -- in normal years -- a very rare bird in this area, but this year, they're definitely around. Having never seen an Evening Grosbeak before (at least not that I can remember), I was so hoping that I'd get to see one this year. And then yesterday, in what feels like an amazingly lucky event, a flock of 12 Evening Grosbeaks paid a visit to our yard! Even luckier, I was working from home, so I got to enjoy and celebrate their visit. Oh my goodness, Evening Grosbeaks!

Most of the individuals in this flock were females or immature birds, with intricate costumes of muted gray, olive, yellow, white, and black. And that big ivory beak is really something. These birds seem to have mostly come to our yard for the sunflower seeds. I'm really glad I put these feeders here!

These are big finches, and they look almost monstrous from some angles, and especially in groups:

Even better! (And note the dwarfed Tufted Titmouse on the left.)

The American Goldfinches who came to the platform feeder in between Evening Grosbeak visits look so tiny in comparison:

Mostly, though, the goldfinches stuck to the large tube feeder stocked with nyjer seed (the most recent addition to our bird-feeding setup), leaving the platform feeder to the visiting grosbeaks:

Here's a wider view, with grosbeaks on the right, and tiny goldfinches on the left (and yes, that feeder pole has gotten really tilty):

This flock of Evening Grosbeaks included one adult male, who came down to the feeder only while I was inside and taking pictures through windows; that combination of brown and yellow body, glowing white wings, and bright yellow eyebrow really is incredible:

The male Evening Grosbeak certainly stands out, but I love the colors and patterns on the other birds in the flock as well. What a lovely coincidence that the other birds' wings and tails blend so well with their background of black sunflower seeds in snow:

The sun even came out for a bit, so here are some Evening Grosbeaks in the sunlight:

How amazing to meet a brand new bird right here at home! The same flock of Evening Grosbeaks even stopped by our feeders again this morning, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they'll make our yard part of their regular route this winter.... We'll see! At the very least, I'll be sure to keep our feeders well stocked. The season is off to a fantastic start, and who knows what fancy creatures might show up next!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Catching Up With Summer, Heading Into Fall

Wow, is it really October 1? It's been three months since I last made a post! I didn't mean to go so long without updating, but things get busy.... And this summer had all sorts of new ways for my time to get away from me. There's my new vegetable garden, for one thing (I'm really happy with this garden's first season!), and on July 1 we brought home this wonderful creature, who sure does require a lot of our time:

Oooo I love this puppy! I already can't believe he was ever that small. He's a very sweet, very smart, very good fellow (most of the time), and he's gotten about three times bigger than he was when we first brought him home! Here he is posing nicely during our daily walk through the meadow on September 22:

Sweet boy. Although I'm outside and walking on our property every day, being tethered to an easily distractable puppy doesn't really allow for a lot of picture taking or careful nature viewing. (Maybe that'll change when he's older?) Even so, I've seen many interesting creatures around our house in the past three months, and since this is now our second summer at this property, I've enjoyed comparing this year's sightings to last year; in some ways, this summer has been very different!

I'm rather sad to say that last summer's invasion of tiny Spring Peepers in our yard (and on our porches, windows, etc.) seems to not be an annual event. In the past few months, I've heard scattered peepers testing out their voices from hidden spots in the yard, and I caught a glimpse of one adult in the woods, but I never saw a single young peeper. I would have expected the wet weather this summer to boost amphibian populations, if anything, but maybe something happened (or didn't happen) early in the spring that affected our local peepers' breeding attempts. Or maybe last year's invasion was a fluke?

Instead of Spring Peepers, though, Ref Efts (juvenile Red-spotted Newts) have been particularly common on our property this summer. I saw one (or more) of these brilliant orange amphibians nearly every day from roughly July through September. Here's a handsome individual in our woods on August 9:

And here's a teeny tiny eft among the flowers of (I think) Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare), a very common plant throughout the un-excavated part of our meadow:

Speaking of plants, many of the wildflowers that came with the property have continued to put on a fantastic show this year. September is when this property practically glows, with wild asters of various species blanketing every edge and border around the yard. Here's just a small section of the swaths that are now covered with our yard's most common aster, Crooked-Stemmed Aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides), on September 14:

And here's a view of the path I've maintained this year through the un-excavated part of the meadow, alight with goldenrod and aster blooms on September 22:

Since last summer, though, we've also added quite a few new plants to the property, making for some very different summer scenery. About 1/4 of our meadow was excavated last fall during a geothermal project, which left a bare stretch of soil and rocks (lots of rocks). In late November, with the ground already starting to freeze, we scattered several pounds of native grass and wildflower seeds (a mixture of 3 grasses and 18 wildflowers) onto the bare ground. In the spring and early summer, we started to see some plants sprouting from the seeds we spread, but we were fairly certain that this disturbed part of the meadow would be mostly bare -- or at least flower-less -- this year. So it was quite a thrill to see species after species appear and bloom over top of what was basically a big empty mud pit at the beginning of the year.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) has done especially well, and these plants make up the bulk of this bright scene on September 15:

Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) has been a delightful discovery from among this mix of seeds, with tall sprays of bright yellow flowers, shown here on August 6:

And how interesting that this plant produces nectar in little wells along its stems -- I'm sure this ant is here for the Partridge Pea's sweet treat:

I found the flowers of this native grass, Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), especially charming (this picture is from September 6):

Overall, I've seen at least some plants of all 3 of the grass species we planted, and 9 of the 18 wildflower species. I'll be very curious to see how this part of the meadow changes and grows in the coming years! (And I'm geared up to battle invasive plants, as I'm sure they will try to take over this recently disturbed area.)

Up closer to the house, the Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) I planted in the yard last fall produced their amazing blooms (this picture is from July 17):

I had never thought of this showy native as a candidate for a perennial garden bed, but there it was at the native plant nursery when I visited last fall, and now it lives here with me. I saw hummingbirds visiting these flowers several times this summer, but I never did manage to have my camera with me at the right moment.... Maybe next year.

I also added Purple Coneflower to the yard, which proved to be very popular with the local butterflies, bees, and beetles. Here's a Tiger Swallowtail at the coneflowers on July 18:

And here's a bumblebee with a distinctive torn wing; we saw this individual at these flowers every day for at least a couple of weeks (pictured here on July 17):

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds seemed very happy to also find big pots of flowers on our deck this summer, and we got the benefit of seeing these birds regularly and up close. On September 12, I was able to take some pictures of one of these wonderful little birds as it visited my zinnias:

What a sweet little bird, sometimes even perching on the petals as it arrived for a drink:

The nearby snapdragons were also tempting, but I include this picture here mostly to point out that perfect little paddle-shaped tail:

There have been a lot of birds around the property this summer. A family of Common Yellowthroats frequently showed up to forage in the various shrubs and brush right near the house. Here's one of these perky little birds on July 18:

And here's another angle, because I'm not used to having such a clear view of these birds:

On August 7, I met up with a family of Dark-eyed Juncos along our woods trail. The juvenile -- looking nothing like a junco except for that half-grown white-striped tail -- made agitated chirps from a nearby tree:

While its parents foraged for honeysuckle berries:

A family of Eastern Wood-Pewees (I saw up to three individuals at once) hung around our house for a while in August, and I was happy to get to see and hear these little flycatchers regularly; here's one of the pewees on August 16:

This Gray Catbird watched me cautiously from the edge of the meadow on September 6:

And this molting American Goldfinch looked especially fancy as it foraged on some goldenrod on September 12:

A few more assorted sights round out the summer. On July 14, I moved a rock next to the garden to find a mother wolf spider carrying her many tiny babies on her back:

An impressive Black and Yellow Argiope spider (Argiope aurantia) hung her egg case on our deck, pictured here on August 25 (although the spider disappeared a few days later):

Several Monarch caterpillars showed up this year, including this individual who was eating an immature seedpod on a Swamp Milkweed plant (Asclepias incarnata) on July 30:

I found this gorgeous, big Laurel Sphinx caterpillar (Sphinx kalmiae) munching on the leaves of a small ash sapling on August 1:

But when I saw the caterpillar again just two days later, it was covered with the cocoons of parasitic wasp larvae that had -- it turns out -- been eating the caterpillar from the inside this whole time; isn't nature crazy?

Finally, because there haven't been enough amphibians in this post, here's a little Red-backed Salamander, one of four that I found under three rocks along our woods trail on September 22; it's nice to know that this salamander's population here continues to thrive:

I continue to be impressed and amazed at the variety of wildlife right here at my home. And now the seasons are turning again, many of the summer birds are already on their way out (with others passing through), and increasingly chilly days mean I should be sure to enjoy all these flowers while they still last. Here comes fall!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Following Up With Families, and Other Assorted June Sights

Spring is such an amazing time of year, and this June has been full of interesting sights. The best part has been seeing so many nesting birds and growing baby animals in our yard! As far as I can tell, practically every corner of our property has had some sort of breeding activity so far this year.

Unfortunately, not all of the breeding attempts have been successful.... Of the five bird nests I've actually seen in our yard, three have failed: I mentioned the raided Dark-eyed Junco and American Robin nests in my last post, and unfortunately I have to add the Chipping Sparrow's nest to that list. So, sorry, I'll tell this sad story first. I never got a good look at the Chipping Sparrow babies (or possibly just one baby) in that little nest hidden in a small shrub right next to our house. But I got to watch the very bold mother bringing food to her nest. Here are some pictures of this lady on June 11 (I know she's a female because her mate is the male Chipping Sparrow with the distinctive white forehead):

She wasn't about to visit the nest while I was there, but she went as far as the garden hose next to the nest's shrub:

And then a few days after I took these pictures, I found the Chipping Sparrows' nest on the ground along with several pieces of some very adult-looking feathers and... a foot. I don't think the female sparrow survived, and I can't think of many things more horrifying than being on your nest while a giant monster (cat? racoon?) approaches, and staying there through the attack.... I also find this outcome particularly upsetting because this is the opposite of how breeding is supposed to work. Ideally, I imagine, you want to come out of the whole thing with more birds than when you started, and of course sometimes the nest is lost and you break even and have to start again, but losing an adult along with the nest is such a bad setback. Ugh, poor birds. I've seen the white-browed Chipping Sparrow since then (and other Chipping Sparrows, too), so all is not lost. But still.

OK, that's the only sad part of this post, I promise. There have been a lot of wonderful successes this month, too!

On June 6, the Eastern Phoebe babies were looking especially fluffy and cozy in their nest above our front door:

And on June 11, a pile of nearly-grown phoebes looked out at the world (I can't believe how quickly baby birds grow); I snuck a picture of the babies from a little ways away, because they were getting close to fledging age:

One of the adult phoebes (with a meal in its beak) kept a careful eye on me from a nearby tree:

And in the next day or so, the baby phoebes left their nest! (Last year, the phoebes in this spot fledged in early July; I wonder whether this year was an early schedule or last year was late.) And wonderfully, the babies have stuck around. I've seen the three awkward baby phoebes several times over the past few weeks, often calling plaintively while watching the adults hunt. Don't worry, babies, you'll get there. Here's one of the fledglings in the shade of our Tulip Tree on June 19:

The Tree Swallows also had great success (and hooray, the nest box we put up this spring seems to have worked really well)! On June 7, the baby Tree Swallows were still mostly naked, and so perfectly tucked into their feather-lined nest:

Just two days later, on June 9, they were looking much darker and prickly:

And on June 11, they were downright fuzzy (also, look at the mess they made on the walls of their nice new box, sigh):

Seeing the baby Tree Swallows up close and growing was wonderful, and I also loved getting to see the adult swallows tending to the nest. As it turned out, these birds were comfortable enough visiting the nest even when I was standing 10 feet or so away with my camera (they took a couple of cautious passes before landing, but still, they mostly went about their business as usual). On June 13, I watched the male Tree Swallow swoop up to the box entrance with a small meal in his beak (the babies always made lots of noise whenever a parent showed up):

Heading inside -- look at those wings!

And he was out again a few seconds later, carrying waste for disposal:

After just a couple of minutes, he was back with an impressive catch; I wonder how he managed to divide up this dragonfly among the hungry youngsters:

When he emerged from the box this time there wasn't any new waste to remove, and he paused long enough at the entrance for another portrait:

I kept away from the nest box in the following days, because the babies were getting old enough that they might fledge too early if I startled them. So I watched from a distance on June 20 as a young Tree Swallow peered out of the box:

And sometime in the few days after that, the swallows left the box, and that was that! They've been gone for a week or so now, with only fleeting appearances by a hunting adult or two in that time. I miss them very much. And now I just need to clean out the box and get it ready for any future potential tenants. :)

So, between the phoebes and swallows, only two out of five bird nests that I knew about were actually successful. That doesn't seem like a great ratio. But there must have been many more nests out there, hidden on and around our property, because I've seen a lot of baby birds in the last few weeks!

On June 7, a female Wild Turkey brought her group of chicks right through our back yard; these aren't the best pictures (I was aiming through deck railing and windows), but... baby turkeys!

I think I see at least five (six?) babies in this next picture:

On June 13, I saw an adult Black-and-White Warbler feeding a recently-fledged baby in the brush at the edge of our meadow. These warblers must have gotten started with nesting right away, as soon as they arrived here in May, to have a baby out of the nest so quickly. Also, I can't believe I live in a place with breeding Black-and-White Warblers!
Other sightings of babies have been more frequent and obvious: Some very whiny baby American Crows have been a big presence in the woods and meadow in recent weeks. Common Grackles and House Finches have brought their awkward and begging babies to our feeders. And still other birds have given me reason to think that they have nests hidden somewhere, even if I haven't seen the babies yet. I heard lots of cheeping and saw two very agitated adult Song Sparrows whenever I walked past a particular spot at the edge of the meadow for a span of time. At one especially brushy back corner of our meadow, I've encountered agitated pairs of both Indigo Buntings and Common Yellowthroats. A Blue-winged Warbler was foraging and acting pretty worked up around our driveway on June 22... but I haven't seen him or her around since then, so either this bird has gotten much more stealthy, or there isn't really a nest nearby.

So really, the amount of bird breeding that's been going on right here -- just in this relatively small patch of yard and meadow and woods -- is awesome. From everything I've listed here (including the failed nests but not including the questionable Blue-winged Warbler), that's 13 species of breeding birds that I've encountered so far this year. Hooray!

It's not just birds with families here, either. The mother Groundhog with a burrow in our raspberry patch did indeed have babies, and we started seeing the little ones above ground on June 11. Baby Groundhogs are abundantly entertaining, with a wonderful combination of adorableness and mischievousness. We've seen up to three babies at a time, but there's almost always been one or two foraging and/or playing around the yard since they first started showing up. Here's one of the babies trailing after mom on June 13:

A stump near the garden has become a popular lounging spot for baby Groundhogs, with those big pieces of bark on top sometimes acting as additional seats and sometimes serving as an interesting chewing surface:

The big rocks below our bird feeders are also popular as what I can only think of as a baby Groundhog playground:

This baby seemed quite curious about what could be up that pole:

Here's a video of the baby hanging out around the feeder rocks; these actions sure look like play to me:

I've really loved watching all the various animal families that have made their home on our property this spring! There have been so many babies... and there's still time for more babies yet, with the whole rest of the summer to go.

Not every sight in the past few weeks has been about babies, though, and I do have a few other assorted things to share. On June 25, I was in the woods pulling invasive Garlic Mustard (sigh, that's going to be a very long battle) when, incredibly, a Ruffed Grouse flew up and perched right above our trail. I think the grouse was as surprised to see me as I was to see it -- I'd had no hints before this that we had Ruffed Grouse in our woods -- and we had a good several seconds of staring at each other before it flew off again (loudly). Wow!

I was also pleased to discover a couple of Maple-leaved Viburnum plants in our woods; among the more common and invasive honeysuckles and multiflora roses (thankfully these plants haven't invaded our woods too badly, yet), it was nice to find this native shrub with its little white flowers:

On the night of June 4, a Polyphemus Moth -- the first giant silkworm moth I've seen on our property -- showed up at our lights. I love giant moths, and it was such a treat to meet this wonderful creature (pictured here with my hand for scale):

That night was chilly, and the moth spent the next drizzly day camped out under a ledge on our deck:

I was a bit worried about this fellow (with those huge feathery antennae I think this must be a male), but he flew off again that night; hopefully he was able to find a mate and make more awesome big moths.

A couple of cool moths made daytime appearances in recent weeks as well. Eight-spotted Foresters are particularly striking for a moth:

And this creature had me wondering why a wasp was hanging out on my pea flowers for so long, until I noticed the fuzzy antennae and realized that this is a moth doing an extremely convincing wasp impression (I haven't been able to identify the species yet):

I can't believe that spring has ended, June is coming to a close, and summer is already in full swing! We've also now officially passed the one-year anniversary of owning this property. This first year here has been so eventful, often tumultuous, and always interesting. I love this place, and I can't wait to see what Year Two has in store!