Pulling privet, banishing buckthorn and mimicking Mother Nature

The (somewhat) varied life of a Mason Farm Biological Reserve volunteer

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Today marks the third anniversary for my work as a Green Dragon – volunteers who help maintain the 367-acre Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. On Tuesdays, a small group gathers to carry out tasks assigned by Neville, who is the Land Manager for this and two other preserves managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden/UNC.

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Neville, string-trimming Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)

winter-wren-i77a8901-maria-de-bruynWhile we work, we can listen to the songs and calls of lovely birds, like the winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), and if we’re lucky, we can see wildlife like painted turtles, raccoons, opossums and coyotes (Canis latrans).

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Being outdoors and helping keep the Reserve a peaceful and beautiful area for research and enjoyment of the natural world provides me with a feeling of civic contribution, as well as satisfaction, chances for discovery and learning, and well-being. So I’d like to share with you a bit of what we do in a lengthier blog than usual.

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wisteria-cutting-img_0427-maria-de-bruyn-resOne of our major tasks is helping make a dent in the eradication process for invasive plants. Some have found their way to the Reserve through natural dispersal mechanisms (seeds carried by the wind and wildlife), while others were unfortunately introduced by humans who didn’t know at the time just how destructive the plants would become in overshadowing native vegetation. Cutting down Chinese and Japanese wisteria vines (Wisteria sinensis, W. floribunda) is a recurrent job.

Some invasives are really beautiful and it’s easy to see why they are still sold in some garden shops, like oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis glandulosa); they are really attractive plants – nevertheless, we remove them when feasible. Autumn and thorny olive (Elaeagnus umbellata and E. pungens) are two others that grow as vines or shrubs.

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buckthorn-i77a2455-maria-de-bruyn-signed-resAnother botanical foe is buckthorn (Rhamnus species), a shrub which can grow into a small tree when unchecked. It has nasty thorns which can pierce clothing and shoes and when it gets older and larger, a weed wrench and extra manpower may be needed to get it out of the ground. On the other hand, pulling up the “baby” buckthorns, especially after rain, can be much easier, though unkind work for your back.

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Volunteer Pete wields a weed wrench; the small buckthorns can be pulled by hand

marbled-salamander-img_3320maria-de-bruyn-resWhen digging holes into some areas, you may come upon salamanders – this female marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) was guarding her eggs when we uncovered her (and quickly covered her again).

The buckthorn produces prolific black berries which are a great favorite of the cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) – flocks will descend to enjoy the sweet treat.

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The cedar waxwings also really like privet (Ligustrum sinense and L. japonicum), which produces numerous black berries a little smaller than the buckthorn. The privet also produces many offspring but when they are very young, they are quite easy to pull up. The privets that grow into trees, however, pose the same challenges as the large buckthorns, calling for multiplied manpower to extract them from the ground and resulting in exhaltation when success is achieved.

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While working on invasive eradication, we often come upon smaller wildlife, like American toads (Anaxyrus americanus, formerly Bufo americanus), bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus), green and gray tree frogs (Hyla cinereal and H. chrysoscelis/versicolor), spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus).

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The many brush piles dotting the landscape in the Reserve, both in wooded areas and fields, are the result of our labors – providing birds and small animals with ready-made homes and hiding places.

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Volunteer Giles and Neville pile up privet and buckthorn

A second major task is planting native plants in various areas of the Reserve – seedlings and young plants are provided by the Botanical Garden and Land Manager and may include flowering species such as Hibiscus and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), fruiting shrubs like common elderberry (Sambucus nigra Canadensis), and varied grasses.

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bill-resting-sore-back-img_0284maria-de-bruyn-signedWhen we do this in summer, the temperatures can get quite high early in the day; water breaks are welcome, as shown by Mason Farm Green Dragon supreme – Bill, who has been volunteering since 2004!

We put in flags to mark the new plantings in case they will need some watering to thrive. When the weather is hotter and drier, watering takes place right away to give the young vegetation a better chance at survival. It’s a real pleasure to see the plants take hold and flower!

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flame-i77a0237-maria-de-bruyn-resSome plants are fire-dependent, meaning their environment must be burned with some regularity if they are to survive and thrive.

Prescribed burns are therefore done at Mason Farm to mimic the natural fires which took place centuries ago before development took over many areas. Woods and fields are burned every few years and great attention is paid to the weather, taking care that no high winds are predicted that could carry embers far away to start fires in unwanted areas. The Green Dragons helped clear fire lines last week for a recent burn – raking away leaves and twigs and bark from areas where the fire will normally die out.

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neville-i77a0232-maria-de-bruyn-resMembers of the fire team receive instructions on their roles – the fire starters ignite the leaves and grasses in stages, pausing to see how fast the fire is moving and how the wind is blowing.

 

 

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Several people will serve as spotters, watching the fire lines to ensure that any escaping embers are put out and some team members clear areas around trees and snags that will be protected against burning (e.g., because they provide homes for woodpeckers).

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Where the leaf litter is not 100% dry, some areas will burn and others will remain untouched.

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Dry grasses can catch quickly and the spreading fire generates intense heat as the flames spread rapidly across a field.

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broad-tipped-conehead-katydid-neoconocephalus-triops-img_1403-maria-de-bruyn-resMy concern is always that not all animals will make it out in time. Fellow volunteer Giles spotted a broad-tipped conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus triops), which he carried to a safe spot. I hope that the Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) have dug down deeply enough to be unharmed by the spreading fire. We saw grasshoppers and bugs fleeing the field being burned this past week and I was happy to see a pair of hispid cotton rats (Sigmodon hispidus) rush out.

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After the fire is mostly burned out, the team walks the edges to tamp out still burning places. The next day, the woods and field look mostly gray, black and sere but experience has taught me that in a few weeks they will begin turning green again.

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There is one more task we carry out which is less frequent but also important – aiding in construction and some clean-up in the Reserve. When funding was received for a boardwalk to make a bog area more accessible after rain, volunteers associated with the Botanical Garden and New Hope Audubon Society as well as Green Dragons built the sections of the board walk, transported them to the site and installed them.

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flooding-img_1936-maria-de-bruyn-resVisitors were very happy with the new walkway but it turned out that the flooding which occurs when Morgan Creek overflows its banks with heavy rains can sometimes be strong enough to lift up boardwalk sections, necessitating repairs. When funds are available, a new solution will be sought to hold the boardwalk more permanently in place.

 

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The researchers who make “temporary” structures when conducting their studies (e.g., bird blinds, platforms, etc.) unfortunately do not always remove these when their research is done. When time permits, we have helped clear away some of this garbage. We also helped repair a sign and the entry road and parking lot after flooding.

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Our volunteer crew is usually a small group of retired persons and a couple students (2-5 people). We’d love to have more people join us so we could get more done and have more input for our conversations covering a range of topics such as botany, geology, wildlife observation, music, sports, travel and current events. The volunteer time of Tuesday mornings unfortunately rules out people who have jobs requiring their presence there on weekdays but we remain hopeful that new volunteers will join us. If you live in the local area and are interested, contact the volunteer coordinator at the NC Botanical Garden!

Outwitting the starlings during Winter Storm Helena

white-tailed-deer-i77a4029-maria-de-bruyn-resSo this past weekend, our part of North Carolina dealt with Winter Storm Helena, which brought us 83 straight hours of below-freezing temperatures (e.g., -9C/15F but we had lower) and a need to bundle up really well if venturing outside. (It also brought me a realization that winter storms are being named like hurricanes.) The first morning, when I went out to fill the bird feeders, I didn’t put on gloves or a cap and dealt with hypothermia symptoms when I finally went inside. I had on triple layers after that! The deer had their fur puffed up and seemed to be coping well.

The frigid air made me feel very sorry for the wildlife, although living outdoors is, of course, what they do and what they have evolved to accommodate. (I did hear today, however, of some birds and small animals that were found frozen to death!) With the snow covering the ground, it turned out the birds were more than happy to visit the feeders and piles of food I had strewn on the snow for the ground feeders.

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Not only did I have many types of birds coming round, but also record numbers of them. Some birds, like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata, above), usually tend to visit on their own and are not happy with their species mates in the vicinity but during these days, I had four of them alighting near feeders at a time. The same was true for the colorful pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) although they didn’t come close to each other.

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The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) don’t seem to have too many problems with sharing space and visited the feeders in the same way they always do – quick flights to and fro from nearby tree and shrub branches.

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Most of the birds were fairly content to be in close proximity to one another during the snow days. The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) did get very cross with one another, however, when they came too close to one another and chased their rivals away.

Sometimes a bird would go off and rummage in the snow, like this blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

 

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european-starling-i77a2674-maria-de-bruyn-resThe biggest challenge for me was keeping the suet and meal worms in supply, mainly because the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) show up in large groups and gulp down food at a speedy pace. The other birds nibble but the starlings seem to inhale food as if they have vacuum cleaners in their throats. They can get grumpy with one another and don’t mind landing atop each other to get a foothold on the feeder.

brown-thrasher-i77a3641-maria-de-bruyn-resI was pleased that the other species of birds are learning to cope with them, no longer being intimidated to fly away when these greedy avians arrive. However, they may get displaced from a feeder just because the bulky starlings take up so much room and never wait their turn to get a spot. The larger birds, like the thrashers and red-bellied woodpeckers, may express their displeasure to the starlings while trying to hold their ground. Other people report common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) as feeder dominant birds but they are well behaved at my house.

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So, what was I going to do? Some of my feeders are set in a flower garden and I had left the dried stalks of sage, butterfly bush and scarlet mallow standing. They don’t look pretty but the birds love sitting on them near the feeders as they digest a bite before getting another. So I began smearing suet on the stalks, which are not sturdy enough to hold the starlings.

The yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees were pleased, as was my faithful ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) and the Carolina chickadee.

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To my surprise, even the larger Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) and brown thrashers discovered and sampled the suet-laden stalks.

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Following advice from the Bird Sleuth program, I had stuffed the bluebird and nuthatch boxes with pine needles and wool in case the birds wanted to shelter there overnight. I don’t know if any of them did, but the brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were again checking out their preferred nest box, so perhaps they did roost there overnight.

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I was filling the heated bird bath daily, too, as it became a popular drinking fountain.

The thrill of the wintery snow days for me was a new yard visitor, a gorgeous fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). I have never had one here before so it was a wonderful surprise and discovery. (I’m still hoping that a red-breasted nuthatch will turn up, too.)

 

 

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The birds “missing” from the storm gathering were the hawks. I’ve had a Cooper’s hawk  (Accipiter cooperii) visiting for years, but recently discovered that a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) is also taking birds from my yard. As they look quite similar, the sharpie may have been coming around for some time and I just never realized it. They were both here in the last couple weeks, but neither one made an appearance during the storm.

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Our two neighborhood white-tailed does (Odocoileus virginianus) and their three offspring came by, obviously finding my yard a peaceful and safe space to rest.

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So I’ll end with some “beauty shots” from the snow days as the snow and ice are now melting. In two days’ time, we are supposed to be having temperatures of 68F/20C or higher! And then we can wait out the rest of January as well as February and March to see if we get any more winter storms.

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White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

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Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)        House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

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Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)          Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

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Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)      Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

blue-jay-i77a2858-maria-de-bruyn-res     eastern-bluebird-i77a2285-maria-de-bruyn-res

Blue jay                                                       Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4047-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4263-maria-de-bruyn-res

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)     Ruby-crowned kinglet

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Northern mockingbird                                              Pine warbler

 

Love my yard!

scarlet-mallow-i77a6509-maria-de-bruyn-res2016 began with distress for me, having just been admitted to hospital in considerable pain and worried about expenses. So when I was able to get home again and find diversion from the necessity of self-administering an IV medication twice daily by admiring what nature has to offer in my yard, it was a more-than-welcome event.

Even when my mood is down, walks in nature soothe my spirit since my mind becomes totally absorbed by what I’m observing and there’s no space for any other thoughts. Even aches and pains recede to the background so when I can’t get out to a reserve or park, taking advantage of the little plot of land I call my own is a real delight.

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The yard has everything – plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, which is very cool indeed. Spring and summer are especially lovely with the blooming flowers and I’ve taken care to include many native vegetative species among the plantings.

 

honey-bee-morning-calisthenics-i77a5676-maria-de-bruyn-resThe flowers and shrubs not only attract birds but many species of insects, too, and give me plenty of chances to practice photographing bees in flight and butterflies nectaring. The Eastern carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica), and European honey bees (Apis mellifera) were good models, as were the Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) and American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) butterflies.

eastern-carpenter-bee-2-i77a7906-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-carpenter-bee-i77a8678-maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-tiger-swallowtail-i77a8669-maria-de-bruyn-res  american-lady-img_0069-maria-de-bruyn-res

blue-pickerel-weed-i77a3947-maria-de-bruyn-resThe front yard has one small pond with blue pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) and the back yard has two ponds and a heated bird bath in winter. Deer, raccoons and birds, like this American robin (Turdus migratorius) use these as watering holes.

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bullfrog-i77a9694-maria-de-bruyn-resFish live in one pond along with green and/or bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus). Occasionally, I’ve had to rescue an adventurous Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) that didn’t seem able to climb out again on the logs provided as bridges out of the water. Other turtles trundle around in other parts of the yard.

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Raquel raccoon (Procyon lotor) and members of her family usually appear at night, as do the local opossums, of whom I have few photos. When Raquel is expecting another brood or in nursing mode, she gets more adventurous and comes round in the daytime.

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The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) come by all months of the year and provide opportunities to see how the fawns learn about the other creatures sharing their space.

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It’s interesting to see how button bucks are followed by yearlings with nubby antlers and eventually grow up to become handsome 5- or more point bucks.

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white-tailed-deer-antler-img_1211-maria-de-bruyn-resThis past year, one of the bucks was kind enough to drop one of his antlers in my yard as a souvenir.

The Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) provide endless amusement – one way is by investigating various techniques to find a way onto the bird feeders. These are largely unsuccessful, even when they climb up on the roof to see if they can launch themselves far enough to reach a feeder pole. This year, however, one enterprising squirrel managed to finally get onto a feeder by climbing up a rather large sunflower stem that held his/her weight until it bent over close to a pole.

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Their antics as they chase one another in play and for amorous purposes, too, are also quite entertaining.

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It’s fun to watch them caching seeds as well; sometimes, they decide a spot in the middle of the lawn is the best hiding place!

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They often will chase non-family members away from the food I put out on the ground – seeds, bits of bread and apples for the birds (crows and catbirds are especially fond of apples). They are usually (not always!) willing to tolerate the Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) who come to get some goodies, too.

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eastern-chipmunk-i77a8790-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-chipmunk-i77a3418-maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-cottontail-i77a9747-maria-de-bruyn-resThe Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) don’t often go for the bird food but prefer to munch on the grasses and other plants growing on the “lawn”.

I was surprised this summer when I discovered that the beautiful neighborhood gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) was fond of bread.

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Her presence in the yard reinforced my resolve to no longer let my former indoor-outdoor cat, Jonahay, out by himself anymore. He has almost reached the ripe old age of 18 years and is going strong despite suffering arthritis, mild kidney disease, mild dementia and deafness. But all the years of having roamed outside have preserved a strong will to go outdoors so I take him for walks around the yard, which give him opportunities to mark his territory anew. (My other two cats are strictly indoor felines, although one of them likes to escape now and again.)

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Two years running now, my yard has served as a venue for a citizen-science bird banding exercise and it’s always a pleasure to see banded birds returning to the feeders, like Corey catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) who enjoys American beautyberries. They also include my intrepid Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), Chantal, who unfortunately lost a leg (I think because she had scaly leg when she was banded and the bands were too tight but I don’t know this for sure). She is a feisty little bird and manages to balance remarkably well on her remaining leg; her daily return is always a joyous sight for me.

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2016 was an exciting year as far as caterpillars went since a large sphinx moth caterpillar (Paonias) graced the yard for the first time (at least that I had noticed).  Cute little jumping spiders (Salticidae) climb onto bird nest boxes and Eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) are found in the leaf litter.

 

jumping-spider-img_0562_1-maria-de-bruyn   click-beetle-img_4582-maria-de-bruyn-res

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Unfortunately, some of the stink bugs (Halyomorpha) make their way into the house so that I have to take them back outside. One of my cats made the mistake of eating one that I hadn’t got in time and she ended up quite sick, even foaming at the mouth!

mouse-img_2726-maria-de-bruyn-resOccasionally, mice (Mus) get into the house. The cats don’t eat them and aren’t out to kill them but if they catch one at night and I don’t awaken, the rodent will be dead in the morning. Otherwise, I manage to get hold of the animal (sometimes with a lot of effort) and let it go outside again.

The snowberry (Hemaris diffinis) & hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris thysbe) are delightful.

snowberry-clearwing-moth-i77a5324-maria-de-bruyn-res   clearwing-hummingbird-moth-i77a7002-maria-de-bruyn-res

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And so were various birds that visited my yard for the first time this year (or at least as far as I had noticed)! They included the black and white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler and Northern parula. Here are three more, plus the beautiful great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus, left), which I’d seen before but not well.

 

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Red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus)

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Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea)

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Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

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I’m so pleased to begin this year in my home and really hope that circumstances in 2017 will allow me to continue enjoying nature, especially in my yard as I work to make it ever more welcoming to the local wildlife. And I hope all of you who read my blog will have many opportunities to get out and appreciate our beautiful natural world, too! Happy New Year to you!

 

Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.

~ Chief Seattle, 1854 ~

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And now for something different…

indonesia-img_0067-maria-de-bruynRecently, I was pondering what I might choose as a subject for a column that I contribute to a bird club newsletter. And then as I was getting New Year’s cards ready to send, a topic emerged. So as I work on some new wildlife photography blogs, here is one with a bit of a different focus, based on the newsletter article I wrote.

Many birders are focused on a few goals when they go out looking for birds – increasing their life-lists, finding a “nemesis bird” that has continued to elude them, celebrating new birds to add to their yard lists, getting a great photographic shot, exploring a new nature area, etc. But there are other ways to celebrate birds as well and one that might help get young people interested in them is to help them begin a bird stamp collection. Or you might find it fun for yourself!

usa-img_0210-maria-de-bruynThe US Postal Service is doing its bit for the stamp collectors with their newest set of stamps issued this month – beautiful songbirds: golden-crowned kinglets, a cedar waxwing, male Northern cardinal and red-breasted nuthatch.

Many other countries also regularly issue stamps honoring popular, unusual and particularly beautiful birds found within their borders. African, Asian and South American countries have particularly disseminated some beauties.

tz-stamp-2-img_0092-maria-de-bruyn  zambia-2-img_0080-maria-de-bruyn   kenya-img_0088-maria-de-bruyn

ethiopia-img_0074-maria-de-bruynIn the 1990s, I received lots of “snail mail” from developing countries since I managed a resource center focused on documentation from those nations. Many organizations and individuals sending me envelopes and parcels did not have postage machines, so they put colorful postage on their mailings and quite a few of those stamps featured birds.

Many of the depictions seem true to life and others are more impressionistic.

 

uganda-img_0072-maria-de-bruyn  switzerland-img_0055-maria-de-bruyn  korea-img_0064-maria-de-bruyn

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Not all the stamps have shown birds that would meet everyone’s definition of beautiful but they are interesting.

And raptors appear to be a favored subject.

 

uar-img_0077-maria-de-bruyn   cameroon-img_0059-maria-de-bruyn   tz-stamp-img_0094-maria-de-bruyn-red

Some stamps not only provide common names but scientific names for the pictured birds.

fiji-img_0062-maria-de-bruyn   nepal-img_0063-maria-de-bruyn  sierra-leone-img_0057-maria-de-bruyn

malawi-img_0084-maria-de-bruyn

nl-img_0056-maria-de-bruynAnd some, like this one from The Netherlands, memorialize endangered species.

Nowadays, with the advent of electronic documentation, books, reports and email, Twitter and other social media slowly replacing typed or handwritten letters and cards, many of us receive much less “old-fashioned” mail than in years past. (To my regret, I will add, as I still really appreciate a handwritten letter and tangible card with words of greeting – the extra effort put into selecting a card or stationery, putting it into an envelope, addressing it and making sure it has postage is a reminder of people’s caring.)  Granted the electronic messaging is cheaper and faster and some venues allow you to select a “stamp” to add to an ecard, like care2. But receiving paper mail is still an enjoyable event for me – and our neighborhood has quite a nice mailman, too!

I am pleased to note that my saved stamps include bird species that I’ve had the privilege of seeing in person.

burkina-faso-img_0058-maria-de-bruyn     cuba-img_0050-maria-de-bruyn  kenya-img_0089-maria-de-bruyn

tz-stamp-img_0099-maria-de-bruyn-red   namibia-img_0076-maria-de-bruyn

usa-img_0050-maria-de-bruyn   zimbabwe-img_0077-maria-de-bruyn  usa-img_0051-maria-de-bruyn

If you are interested in this type of hobby and don’t get much paper mail, there are online purveyors of bird stamps where you can purchase items to add to your collection:

http://www.bird-stamps.org/

https://www.postbeeld.com/stamps-shop/bird-postage-stamps

http://www.birdtheme.org/

http://www.avionstamps.com/ambrowCart/shop/show_products.php?search=Birds

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And there is a society dedicated to bird stamp collectors.  So, if you’re looking for a new pastime to while away some time when the weather just doesn’t invite you outdoors to see birds in person, there is an avian-focused option! And maybe you can persuade friends and family to send you some snail mail to support your new avocation. 🙂

 

 

 

ecuador-img_0069-maria-de-bruyn    malawi-img_0085-maria-de-bruyn-red

kenya-img_0091-maria-de-bruyn  senegal-img_0060-maria-de-bruyn  zambia-1-img_0080-maria-de-bruyn

My nemesis birds!

european-starling-dk7a5386-maria-de-bruyn-resIn the birding world, a “nemesis bird” often refers to a species of bird that is eluding a birder intent on adding to their life list of bird species seen in person. For me, however, a nemesis bird is one that is emptying my feeders and depriving other birds of their bit of nutritional goodness because it descends in such great numbers that no one else has a chance. Which bird is this? It’s the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a bird which I admittedly find visually beautiful but rather unattractive as far as temperament goes.

northern-mockingbird-i77a9648-maria-de-bruyn-resOther birders who spend time attracting birds to their yards often comment on how Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) chase other birds away – those in my yard feed quite happily alongside other species, however, and even wait their turn for the suet feeders. Another large bird, the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), does the same. In fact, most of the species that visit my yard are content to share feeder space and/or wait their turn.

brown-thrasher-img_9913-maria-de-bruyn-res     sharing-feeders-i77a9154-maria-de-bruyn-res

american-crow-dk7a2281-maria-de-bruyn-resOther species that are called “bully birds” include common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula, below), who can look quite beautiful with iridescent feathers, blackbird species and house sparrows. The grackles and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in my yard have not been too dominant; they do sometimes come in numbers but let other birds near. I haven’t had crowds of grackles lately and when they’ve come, their main concern was to attempt to drive away the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos, above), so my main foe has been the starlings.

common-grackle-dk7a2236-maria-de-bruyn-res   common-grackle-i77a1447-maria-de-bruyn-res

They discovered my yard as a buffet about a year ago and introduced their young to the feasting area this past summer.

european-starling-dk7a3396-maria-de-bruyn-res  european-starling-dk7a3404-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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What is striking to me is the fact that they not only will “yell” at other species to go away but also compete vigorously with one another for a spot at the platform and other feeders, indicating a rather nasty disposition.

european-starling-dk7a5130-maria-de-bruyn-res   european-starling-dk7a0871-maria-de-bruyn-res

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The young starlings pick up on this behavior quickly.

If I come outside, they quickly fly off and roost high up in the tallest trees; sometimes, they will actually fly off to another place in the neighborhood. Clapping my hands and banging on the window will also get them to leave. However, they stick around to assess whether I will appear and if I don’t come out, they are back in short order.

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Their first love turned out to be the dried mealworms, which are a big hit with the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and pine warblers (Setophaga pinus, left) among other species.

eastern-bluebird-i77a6862-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-bluebird-i77a9596-maria-de-bruyn-res

tufted-titmouse-img_4143-maria-de-bruyn-res   tufted-titmouse-i77a9678-maria-de-bruyn-res

carolina-chickadee-i77a9738-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a7312-maria-de-bruyn-res

It’s always a pleasure to see the banded birds return, like the Carolina wren below.

carolina-wren-i77a9548-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a9547-maria-de-bruyn-res

When five or more starlings gather around a feeder, they literally gulp the mealworms down, making short shrift of a good-sized supply.

european-starling-dk7a0937-maria-de-bruyn-res   european-starling-dk7a2433-maria-de-bruyn-res

northern-cardinal-i77a2061-maria-de-bruyn-resI began putting out only mixed seed, sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) and my home-made vegetarian suet, the latter being a favorite for many species: the bluebirds, chickadees, wrens, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left), and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens and Melanerpes carolinus).

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brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a6423-maria-de-bruyn-res

downy-woodpecker-dk7a1967-maria-de-bruyn-res   downy-woodpecker-dk7a1961-maria-de-bruyn-res

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4258maria-de-bruyn-res red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a0440-maria-de-bruyn-res

My resident ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) hasn’t returned this winter (though I hope he is just late), so he doesn’t have to compete with the much, much larger starlings for his beloved meals.

ruby-crowned-kinglet-img_1776-maria-de-bruyn-res  ruby-crowned-kinglet-dk7a0538-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-dk7a5647-maria-de-bruyn-resTo my dismay, when the starlings discovered no mealworms were available, they decided that suet could be a nice substitute. Oy vey! They manage to empty the suet holders in record time.

I waited to put out the suet until I saw no starlings in any of the tall trees surrounding the yard.

european-starling-img_0035-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-i77a7189-maria-de-bruyn-resThe smaller birds came but this lasted only a little while. Soon the starlings showed up, leading me to think that either “scout” or “watch birds” were left behind to warn the flock when preferred food arrived, or they had a tremendous sense of smell that led them to my yard. It does turn out that starlings use their sense of smell to identify plants for their nests, so who’s to say they don’t use it to find food, too?

 

red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a1833-maria-de-bruyn-resOne bird advice website recommends avoiding sunflower seeds as “bully birds” prefer them. Well, so far, the starlings have assiduously avoided any seeds. So a couple days ago, I filled all the feeders with seed except for the suet feeders – and I stood outside next to them so that the songbirds could have a go at the suet without their bigger avian neighbors chasing them away. It was gratifying to see the little ones enjoy a bit of suet while the starlings perched high above, unwilling to come down in my presence. Today, it was raining persistently but the songbirds were flying to and fro among the feeders so I put suet in three holders and some mealworms in one.

For an hour or so, they had the dried worms and peanut butter-based treat to themselves; then a starling appeared. I went outside but this particular bird didn’t seem to mind. When three of its compatriots arrived and saw me, they swooped away so the little birds still could grab some suet and mealworms.

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Now I’ll wait to see if the starlings begin eating the seed or finally move on or stay away for longer periods. I’m guessing as long as there is occasional suet, they will leave their scouts in place to warn them when a tasty meal is available. And I do want to put out some mealworms now and again so I don’t disappoint the chickadees and wrens who greet me with loud twittering when I approach empty feeders. Non-birders probably think that’s silly (to put it mildly) but I think bird lovers will understand….