Saturday, June 29, 2019

June Families and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food! Yum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing it, sparrow:

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

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

And a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis):

With a female Blue Dasher not far away:

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Basically All of Spring: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basically All of Spring: Part 1

Since I last posted (in mid-March), I've been thoroughly enjoying spring in all its various stages. I love early spring, with its barest hints of growth; this picture of our house on a misty mid-April afternoon might seem bleak, but there's the faint green of new grass in the meadow, and the faint red of flowers on the maple trees:

And I love later spring, when everything's bright and new and so colorful; here's a view from our meadow just a month after the previous picture, on May 16:

The time frame for this current post almost exactly matches my two-part spring summary post from 2018 (which, while not planned, is convenient for me, because in the future I'll be able to look back and directly compare these two years). We actually got to spend more time at our house this year compared to last year (no lengthy traveling, and no house damage forcing us to stay in a hotel), so we were around to see more things. Even so, spring has felt like a whirlwind, with so much change and growth and motion, and not nearly enough time to take it all in. But I do what I can! And I've seen some really wonderful things this spring. (With so many sightings, this will need to be two posts. Here's part 1!)


All the usual mammals have been around this spring: White-tailed Deer (including a fawn as of yesterday, June 3), Eastern Cottontail Rabbits, Red and Gray Squirrels, and Eastern Chipmunks. A Groundhog has shown up to forage in our yard several times, and while we're fairly certain she's a mother, we haven't seen any babies yet. Here's a chipmunk posing near the edge of our woods on May 1:

This spring has also brought a couple of amazing mammal sightings. For a few chilly days (and nights) at the end of April, a tiny Tricolored Bat (which used to be called an Eastern Pipistrelle) roosted near the ceiling of our front porch. This bat was only a couple of inches long, and we worried about it a bit as it stayed huddled in the same rather open spot for so long; but as soon as the weather warmed up again, it headed off. I feel very lucky to have gotten to see this little creature, and we were happy to share our porch with it:

Also incredibly lucky: On the evening of May 25, I saw a Gray Fox in our meadow. We were both out walking through the meadow, we spotted each other, stared at each other for several seconds (I had binoculars but hadn't brought my camera, sigh), and then the fox turned and bounded off. I knew Gray Foxes were around because they showed up on our trail camera a couple of times last year, but I'd never seen a Gray Fox in person before. It was beautiful, and somehow sleek and bushy at the same time. What an amazing creature!


Spring is a great time for birds, of course, with so many species leaving, arriving, passing through, and getting started with breeding. On March 23, I watched a flock of Snow Geese fly over the house, headed north:

A handsome male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker spent several days in April drilling and tending wells in our Shagbark Hickory tree:

A male Wild Turkey displayed in our meadow a few times, mostly for females who seemed uninterested (this picture is from April 11):

Turkeys are such strange-looking birds. Here's a flamboyant male who passed through the meadow on May 1:

Song Sparrows are among the cast of regulars in our yard during the spring -- I can almost always hear and/or see a Song Sparrow somewhere around the house or meadow if I try. But that doesn't mean I won't take the opportunity to make a picture of one of these handsome birds if they let me; I love Song Sparrows, and I'm very happy to have them around:

The male Chipping Sparrow with the white forehead arrived back in our yard this spring; this was the third year in a row we've seen him here, and it's nice to be able to greet a familiar individual bird:

Sadly, this is the last year we'll get to see this fancy fellow. At some point in May, he stopped showing up in the yard, and a few days later I found his body by the side of the road. I'm guessing he was hit by a car. Finding a dead animal is always sad, but this feels especially so because I could recognize the individual. I suppose these things happen, and I don't like it.

May brought all sorts of exciting avian arrivals. I watched this male Hooded Warbler singing from exposed perches in our woods on May 16:

The apple tree next to our house had lots of blossoms this year, and it drew in quite a few birds (who looked especially pretty surrounded by all those pink flowers). Here's a Blue-winged Warbler on May 17:

And a Tennessee Warbler on the same day:

I saw Tennessee Warblers in this tree several times this May, apparently because of some nice buggy meals hiding inside the blossoms. Here are some more pictures of the same individual from the previous picture, showing off some impressive foraging skills -- watch out, bugs:

Baltimore Orioles were also frequent visitors to this tree, although I kept missing them with my camera. Even at one of the more distant trees, though, a male Baltimore Oriole surrounded by apple blossoms made quite a sight:

See the next post (part 2) for the rest of this spring's sightings!