Sunday, December 22, 2019

Winter Solstice

Yesterday was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. I made sure to spend some time outside yesterday to mark this event, but the weather was bitterly cold and overcast, perhaps suitably bleak given the day. Much better was today, the day after the solstice, when temperatures got into the 40s (F) and the sky was sunny and clear. From here on out, the light will be slowly returning, and being outside on this sun-filled day felt like a great way to celebrate that fact!

This is the first place I've lived where I've noticed such a vast difference in the sun's height between summer and winter. (And now that I think about it, I suppose this is the farthest north I've lived.) On summer days, the sun reaches almost directly overhead. Now, the sun barely gets above the trees. I took this picture in our meadow at around 12:30 today, and that's maximum sun for this time of year:

The sun lit up these fuzzy Virgin's Bower seedheads at the edge of the meadow:

A Common Raven called for several minutes from the ridge above our house and made a pass over the meadow. Common Ravens aren't actually all that common around here, and I feel very lucky that a pair of these birds seems to be year-round residents at this nearby ridge:

I watched some Black-capped Chickadees foraging among old seedheads on our Tulip Tree:

While a couple of noisy White-breasted Nuthatches worked over one of our old apple trees. Those rusty feathers under this bird's tail are one of my favorite things about White-breasted Nuthatches:

What a handsome bird you are, little nuthatch:

I'm hoping for more of these wonderfully sunny days in the wintry months to come, with the sun a bit higher in the sky each day!

Saturday, December 7, 2019

From Brown to White

The landscape becomes so brown in late November. Although it's a mostly quiet and dormant time of the year, there are still plenty of interesting things to see. On November 25, I wandered in our meadow, admiring the wide variety of textures and shades-of-brown on the plentiful dried plant stems remaining after this year's growth. These arching goldenrod seedheads were especially fluffy and pretty:

And I love the mix of puffball seedheads and curly dried leaves on this aster:

Wider views of the undisturbed part of the meadow (the part that wasn't excavated and reseeded afterward) showed interesting patchworks of dried plants:

Red pedicels on Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) shrubs at the edge of the meadow added some color among all the brown:

A few familiar winter-season birds were out and about as well. This Black-capped Chickadee was busy processing a sunflower seed and didn't seem to mind me standing nearby:

And a fluffy White-breasted Nuthatch worked its way along a tree trunk:

Hey, do you have a seed, too?

November 25th and 26th were relatively warm days, and I was surprised to see several moths -- which turned out to be Fall Cankerworm Moths (Alsophila pometaria) -- both during the day and at night under our porch light:

Here's another one of these moths that ended up in our house for a bit:

And after I saw my first wingless female moth earlier in the year, wouldn't you know it, female Fall Cankerworm Moths are wingless as well. (The moths in the above pictures are males.) Since that was the only species of moth I saw on those warm-weather days, I have to assume that this wingless moth on our porch on November 26 is a female of that species. Nature is so interesting and weird!

And speaking of insects, on November 25 I moved a log against our house's foundation and uncovered a pile of hibernating ladybugs; that's a lot of bugs, but given how many ladybugs we find in and around our house on warm days, I'm not particularly surprised to find this big of a group here:

On December 2, we got our first big snowstorm of the season. And it was a big storm, bringing a layer of ice followed by about a foot of thick, clinging snow overnight, and then more snow throughout the day. Most places around here closed that day -- including my work -- so I had some extra time in which to enjoy this transformation of the landscape into a world of white. The hillside across the valley from our house grew massive white structures (with pine trees somewhere underneath):

Here's a view along one edge of our property, with the old and nearly-collapsing shed surrounded by heavy snow:

The snow was so sticky -- and there was so little wind -- that it gained quite a bit of height even on narrow spots, and formed some interesting shapes. I especially like these fancy hats that developed on the Purple Coneflower seedheads:

Several birds were active throughout the snowy day, including this Northern Cardinal who was munching on Pokeweed berries:

Now that we're in December, I expect to see a lot of white landscapes for the next few months. It's definitely winter now!

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Rest of Summer and Fall

Where does the time go? Since the last time I posted -- in late July -- I've seen lots of interesting creatures and plants in and around our yard, and I guess I'd better share those sights before we get too far into winter now! So here's a collection of sights from the last few months, in chronological order.

I was excited to see Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars munching on the leaves of my Spicebush plants, slowly getting bigger and sporting those cool snake-mimic eye spots (this picture is from July 29):

But then after a few days, every one of the caterpillars ended up getting eaten. Maybe next year's caterpillar cohort will have better luck? (Maybe I should think about protecting them.)

August 1 was a warm day, and a Blue Jay spent a few moments sunning itself on our deck railing (this fuzzy picture is the best I could manage through a window screen):

And a Mourning Dove over on our platform feeder had the same idea:

The night of August 15 brought a couple of cool visitors to our front porch. We haven't had another big invasion of Spring Peepers since the summer of 2017, so it was a nice treat to see this tiny peeper perched on the wall:

And on another part of the wall, a wingless moth was laying her eggs:

I knew that some species of moths have females that don't have wings, but I'd never actually seen one before. I'm not sure what species this is (perhaps a type of tussock moth?). Without wings, I have a hard time seeing the moth connection, but there you are. Nature is so bizarre sometimes! Here's another picture from closer up:

On August 17, an alarmingly large wasp -- a Pigeon Tremex (Tremex columba) -- got itself momentarily trapped in a tray of water on our deck. That's quite the abdomen on this creature!

I saw several White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillars this year -- here's one of these fancy caterpillars on our front porch on August 24:

On August 31, a walk into our woods let me cross paths with two beautiful male Hooded Warblers:

I'm fairly certain that Hooded Warblers nest in our woods during the summer, but seeing two adult males together makes me think that these individuals were migrants passing through. It was really exciting to get to see these birds up close:

While walking through the meadow that same day, I found a grasshopper with its abdomen pushed into the dirt of the path, perhaps depositing eggs underground?

Also on August 31, our yard was host to a Giant Swallowtail, a totally new butterfly for me:

This really was a large butterfly, noticeably bigger than the Tiger Swallowtails we frequently see around our yard in the summer. It fed at this patch of garden phlox for several minutes, flapping its broad wings the whole time:

And then it moved on. How cool to get to meet what I now know is one of the largest butterflies in North America!

This was a good year for Red Efts (the juvenile form of Red-spotted Newts) in our yard. I usually see efts on the ground, but this hefty individual was lounging on top of some hosta leaves next to our house on September 8:

Twice in September, I moved a rock next to my garden and found a tiny Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) underneath. This is only the second reptile species I've seen so far on our property -- before this point I'd only seen Garter Snakes here -- and I was happy to find at least a little more reptile diversity! Plus, Brown Snakes are so small and cute:

On September 14, I watched a perfect and brilliantly colored Monarch visiting the zinnias on our deck:

These colors are so amazing, and this is the first time I've noticed those tiny flecks of white near the front edge of this individual's wings, like reflective highlights setting off the black marks:

Another Monarch was feeding at some mint blossoms a bit further away, looking like an intricate ornament hanging from those sprays of pale purple flowers:

And while I watched the Monarchs, a House Finch stopped by to eat an apple in the nearby tree:

By mid-September, the New England Asters on our property were putting on an incredible show. The house had a few New England Aster plants already when we moved in, but we scattered more seeds in the disturbed part of the meadow in fall 2017, and this is the first year that those new plants came into full bloom. Many of these plants were tall and robust, with bright purple blooms:

It was a joy to see other colors of New England Aster blossoms in the meadow as well, including these delicate pink ones:

Here's a group of pink, purple, and deep-purple New England Asters on September 28 (when many of the plants were already past their prime):

Each year I try to identify more of the incredibly diverse and abundant asters that grow on our property; I'm up to at least 10 species so far. September is a spectacular time for flowers here, and I'm very happy to have added this New England Aster show to our meadow!

An old Concord Grape vine produced plentiful clusters of grapes this year, which we very much enjoyed. These Bald-faced Hornets made good use of the grapes as well:

The American Hazelnut bushes I planted in 2017 have now gotten big enough to produce their first little catkins (in preparation for the spring), and I loved seeing these structures dangling among fall-turned leaves in late September:

I think the fall colors of these American Hazelnut leaves are especially beautiful, and they made such a lovely stage for this little yellow caterpillar (I don't know the species) on September 28:

Here's another insect and plant pairing from September 28, this time a katydid with super long antennae on turning sumac leaves:

On October 12, I was happy to come across a Hermit Thrush foraging at the edge of the meadow. What a beautiful bird, whose subtle brown outfit seems so suited for fall:

Other cool encounters from the past few months (without accompanying pictures) include yard bird species #102 -- a couple of Bay-breasted Warblers foraging in our spruce trees on September 12 -- and #103 -- a male Wood Duck flying over our meadow on September 28. In October, something broke apart our bird feeders, and when I asked our neighbors whether bears ever show up in our area, they said they'd seen a bear on their trail camera not too long before. So we're pretty sure a bear came through our yard!

Now that November's winding down (how did we get here already?), the landscape is all brown and dormant, and daylight is getting slim. Our first snow stuck around for a few days and teased winter, but we're not quite into the snowy months yet. That will come soon enough!

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!