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!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Bulk of Spring: Part 2

To continue the previous post, I'm chronicling more of the amazingly rich goings-on at our house over the past couple of months. I haven't even finished with the birds yet!

Birds, continued
Many of the birds we saw in our yard in April and May were birds who were also around during the winter (maybe not necessarily these same individuals, but the same species at least). Familiar as they are, it's still nice to see these birds in the spring as well. For instance, Purple Finches have remained common visitors at our feeders; I've never had the chance to see Purple Finches so frequently before, and I've loved becoming more familiar with these birds (and I'm much more confident in distinguishing them from House Finches now). Here's a male Purple Finch posing nicely on the feeder:

The male American Goldfinches gradually molted into their highlighter-yellow outfits for the summer:

And before the leaves came in was a good time to watch this Downy Woodpecker demonstrating an excellent place to stash seeds from the feeder (many woodpeckers have now used this crevice in this apple tree for this purpose):

It was great to see a couple of familiar birds turn their attention to nesting in the spring, although I'm sorry to say that neither of the following two nesting attempts were successful. A Dark-eyed Junco built a nest right on the slope between the road and our yard; here's a picture of the mother on her nest (incubating eggs) on May 10:

The junco's nest was very well hidden -- I'd never seen a junco nest before, and I never would have seen this one if we hadn't accidentally passed too close and startled the female off of the nest. I hope it wasn't because of our closely-passing scent trails that the nest was raided by a predator sometime in the next week or so; on May 17, I found the nest abandoned and eggshell fragments nearby. Hopefully the juncos have had time to start a fresh nesting attempt in a new location.

Similarly, an American Robin set up a nest in a very neat-looking spot under our solar panels. I very much enjoyed receiving the adult robin's glares when walking along this edge of the meadow (this picture is from May 11):

But this nest, too, was a failure. Just yesterday (June 7), we found a pile of neatly-plucked juvenile robin feathers -- some of the larger feathers were still partially encased in sheathes -- on the ground near the solar panels, and the nest was empty. I'm guessing a hawk saw this nest and helped itself to the contents. Oh sigh. It's a tough world out there!

Wild Turkeys became a fairly common sight in our meadow this spring, and we got to observe lots of interesting behaviors from these big birds. Around dusk on April 30, a male and female turkey wandered into the back of the meadow, and the male proceeded to display his fancy feathers:

The female didn't seem especially impressed, but he kept at it:

While the male turkey was busy trying to impress the female, the female went about her business. She sat in a bare patch in the meadow, fluffed out her feathers, kicked at the dirt, and got a nice thorough dust bath:

It turns out that the bare part of our meadow is the perfect spot for turkey dust baths! Over the next couple of weeks, we saw turkeys bathing in the dirt here several times. I had no idea our property was so well suited as a turkey spa! Here's the bathing spot, a circle of nice, fine, kicked-up dirt:

And here's a video of one of the turkeys bathing away:

Even aside from the courtship displays and dust bathing, I've enjoyed seeing Wild Turkeys close to the house throughout the spring. They're such large birds, with so many subtly different patterns and colors in their outfit:

I like the sweet, closed-eyed look on this lady's face while she scratched herself at the edge of the meadow on May 17:

And when I went outside soon after taking the above picture, she swiftly moved away (looking very sleek in the process):

After this spring, the list of birds I've seen/heard in the yard is up to 86 species. I'm happy with that!

Amphibians and Reptiles

The property continues to be poor in reptiles (no signs of snakes or turtles or anything all spring). But the amphibian populations are strong. The choruses of Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs were especially loud in April, and the Gray Treefrogs and American Toads joined in more heavily in May. Most of this vocal and breeding activity seems to have taken place beyond our property's borders; I had been hopeful that the shallow pond in our woods would be a great place for amphibians to breed, but I only ever heard a few Wood Frogs calling from that area, and I haven't seen any signs of eggs or tadpoles. Even so, I loved hearing these amphibians, and we did get to see the occasional Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers out and about during the day. Several Red Efts (juvenile Red-spotted Newts) also showed up in our yard in May.

Insects and Others

Spring is also the time for the bugs to start coming out. I didn't pay too much attention to insects and arachnids this spring, but I did come across this incredibly ornate beetle in the genus Calligrapha (an appropriate name for this creature, I'd say):

And on one morning in late April, the still-brown meadow was decorated with small spider webs:


I'm still very much learning what plants grow on this property, and this spring held some nice surprises. At the beginning of May, I discovered a thriving patch of Ramps in our woods, conveniently close to the trail we built. We harvested a few of these leaves, but the vast majority of the patch is still there, and hopefully it will keep growing in future years:

Several patches of Trout Lilies (one of my favorite spring flowers) popped up in the woods as well, but the only flower I found this spring was way on the other side of the property, next to the road:

The woods across the street from our house were practically carpeted with White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in early May; I only found one of these flowers on our property, but what a beautiful flower it was:

Our woods turned out to have thriving populations of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, along with several Dwarf Raspberry (Rubus pubescens) plants:

And Viola pubescens (commonly called Downy Yellow Violet, but our variety doesn't seem particularly downy):

Last fall, we seeded the bare part of our meadow with native grass and wildflower seeds. Some of the seeds we scattered have sprouted this spring; it's difficult to say exactly what all these seedlings are, but I'm learning to recognize some, like this darling little Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis):

And it's always nice to enjoy the changing hillside views around our house; I think the new spring foliage (on May 16 in this picture) is almost as lovely and colorful as the same hillside in the fall:

I really do feel lucky to be able to live in this place, to be back in our house, and to be able to enjoy and care for this property. It's been almost a whole year since we started settling down here, and so much has happened already! Soon we'll start repeating seasons (starting with summer), and I'm excited to see what happens next.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Bulk of Spring: Part 1

What a hectic and fully-packed couple of months this has been! When I last posted, on March 23, winter was just barely starting to hint at spring. April turned out to be a wild month, with winter clinging on as long as it could, despite the lengthening days. On April 8, a series of quickly passing storms let me take a picture of basically all of April's weather in one frame -- thickly falling snow on the left, and blue sky on the right:

When spring finally took hold (toward the end of April, and later than last year's spring arrival in this area), the change was solid; we haven't had a snowfall or even a frost (as far as I know) since late April (this area's average last frost is May 15).

I mentioned in my last post that storm-born damage to our house at the beginning of March landed us in a hotel. Well, we were eventually able to move back into our house, but not until April 27. (That's almost two months, you'll notice! The insurance company took their time with our claim.) We visited and worked at the house as much as we could during that time, but it wasn't the same, and I'm sure I missed a lot of things (the first rainy-warm amphibian night of the year, for instance). In between attention to work and house repairs, I also made a big push to get our first vegetable garden going at the house (my first real garden in four years). And then for a big 10-day chunk in May, we took an international trip (where I saw many amazing things, and I hope to post about that adventure here later). Whew! And through all of that, the seasons have changed, new animals and plants have shown up in the yard, and I've done my best to keep up with all of this in what is our first spring on this property.

So here's a summary of the natural goings-on (at least what I saw of them) at our house in the past couple of months!


Red Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, and White-tailed Deer have continued to be the most commonly seen mammals on our property. An Eastern Cottontail rabbit seems to be living on the edge of our meadow, and Gray Squirrels have shown up a few times as well.

On April 6, a beautiful Red Fox wandered through our meadow around dusk and did a bit of hunting (there are plenty of voles and mice here, too). This was the first time we'd seen a fox on the property, although I'd suspected they were around. The fox paused for a moment on top of some rocks we'd left in the meadow, then it moved along:

Toward the end of April, we saw a Groundhog carrying mouthfuls of leaves and grass into a burrow at the edge of our yard. If there are Groundhog babies down there, we haven't seen them yet. On May 16, I watched an adult Groundhog foraging near the bird feeders; here's a picture of the Groundhog on alert, with a dandelion bud hanging from its mouth, listening to Paul doing yard work and getting ready to dive into a nearby burrow in the raspberry patch:


April and May brought so much change in the bird population around here, and it was especially exciting to welcome back some individual birds who were summer residents last year. A Chipping Sparrow with a uniquely white forehead was a frequent fixture in our yard last summer, and when the Chipping Sparrows started showing up again in April, there he was! Here's a picture of this striking fellow on May 11:

And here he is on April 28, posing in spruce tree with another (more typically outfitted) Chipping Sparrow:

I was already fairly certain that our white-browed Chipping Sparrow was a male, because I've seen him singing boisterously from the tops of trees. As it turns out, Chipping Sparrows are not secretive about copulating, and as of this spring I can confirm that yes, he's a male. I love having an easily recognizable individual bird as our neighbor (as I'm writing this, I can see him right now outside my window; that flash of white really is eye-catching).

I took this picture of another Chipping Sparrow under the feeders on May 2nd -- the white-browed sparrow's mate, perhaps?

And just a few days ago, I found out where Mr. white-browed Chipping Sparrow and his mate have their nest. I was working around the garbage cans at the side of our house, and I noticed that a normal-looking Chipping Sparrow (the female, I know now) was chirping and preening on a low branch in a nearby tree. I thought at first that she was being unusually sociable (how nice of this bird to hang out here with me), but after a few minutes it occurred to me that there was probably another reason why this bird wasn't flying away. So I peered into the small shrub near me, and yep, there's a nest in there! Here's the shrub -- it's so small and isolated, I really wouldn't have thought of this as a likely nesting place:

And here's a picture of the nest and the four beautiful brown-speckled-blue eggs, as of June 2 (this is as clear a picture as I could get without touching the branches):

I pass by this shrub frequently, and now I almost always see the female Chipping Sparrow on the nest; she's a stalwart mother.

We were also happy to welcome back our Eastern Phoebe neighbor, presumably the same one who nested above our front door last year, because she's built another nest in the same spot. Even before she started building, though, she hung around the prospective spot for a week or so. On April 11, after it got dark outside, we opened the front door to leave the house (to go back to the hotel) and we must've startled the phoebe from her roost because she flew right inside the house! She flew gracefully around our dining room a few times (not hitting anything or even pooping anywhere), and then she flew right back out the front door. (We had to turn off the room lights and turn on the porch light to show her where to go, but she went out on her own.) What an amazing encounter. And more generally, I love seeing a phoebe in our front yard nearly every time I look:

She completed the nest by early May -- it's a lovely construction of plant fiber, mud, and moss, with some pink (synthetic?) stuff worked in as well:

When I peeked into the nest on May 10, I found five perfect eggs inside:

And a visit to the nest on June 1 revealed three quill-covered babies (I guess not all of the eggs hatched):

On April 5, we set up two bluebird nest boxes in our meadow, complete with predator baffles on the poles. It was looking at first like we wouldn't get any tenants in these boxes this year, but after a great deal of waffling a pair of Tree Swallows eventually settled in. Here's the female Tree Swallow sitting on top of the chosen box:

I don't think I realized before this year how subtly beautiful female Tree Swallows are. I love the muted blue feathers on her back and wings:

Here's the brighter male Tree Swallow keeping watch from atop the old Purple Martin house that's still standing in our yard; the Tree Swallow pair seemed to be considering nesting in this old box when they first returned this year -- which is why I haven't taken this box down yet -- but a group of European Starlings pulled out the Tree Swallows' nesting material and moved them along (and then the starlings didn't even try to nest in the box themselves):

I love having Tree Swallows around, and I think the male is one of our prettiest birds:

I also love the sounds that Tree Swallows make, which are something like strange burbling whistles. Here's a video of our male Tree Swallow grooming himself and singing outside our bedroom window on the morning of May 6:

The Tree Swallows were about halfway through building their nest on May 8, and when I checked the box on May 17 there were two tiny white eggs nestled among the feather-lined nest. On June 1, I saw the finished clutch, five eggs in total:

And just two days later, on June 3, the nest was filled with tiny day-old (or less?) babies:

I don't know yet whether that fifth egg has hatched. The other couple of times I've checked the nest box, the female has stayed steadfast on the nest, which makes it hard to see what's going on in there, but it's also awesome to see this beautiful lady eye to eye, with just a sheet of plastic between us:

May brought several other fancy new arrivals to our yard as well. Chestnut-sided Warblers have been hanging around quite a bit, and on May 10, I came across a group of at least three of these handsome birds foraging at eye level along the edge of our woods:

This one found a treat:

Chestnut-sided Warblers are my favorite of the warblers, not least because their outfits are so beautiful and interesting from every angle:

How awesome to have these birds here! (And I'm keeping my fingers crossed that some of them are sticking around to breed.)

Other warblers passed through, too, including a few Tennessee Warblers who spent a good deal of time working over our apple trees and singing almost constantly:

I've been happy to welcome back the Gray Catbirds; I miss their strange cat-like calls and rambling songs when they're not here, and they're such elegant birds:

One of the most surprising arrivals in May was a bunch of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, surprising because we only saw these birds briefly last summer, and only toward the end of the season. But our feeders were apparently a big hit with these birds this year, and through almost all of May these gregarious birds were a strong presence in the yard. The males are really stunning:

The female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are very pretty as well:

I never quite got used to looking out at the feeder and seeing black-and-white birds with what looked like a serious wound on their chest (really, what's with that blood-red color?). Overall, the feeders were very popular throughout April and May. Here's one picture of feeder activity on May 10, with a Rose-breasted Grosbeak among American Goldfinches, a Purple Finch in the lower left, and a Pine Siskin on the right:

Indigo Buntings have been another amazing May arrival, and they've been hanging around enough that I've now learned their song. I was surprised to see this male Indigo Bunting hopping around under the feeder one May afternoon, like a bizarrely colored finch or sparrow (I even saw him visit the feeder later, which I've never seen before):

May has also brought back the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, including this delightful male:

This tiny bird is very flashy, when seen from just the right angle: 

Spring is so amazing, and I have much more to share! But this post is getting too long, so consider this the first part of a larger post. Part 2 will be along soon!