Back to blogging with the golden crowns!

Litter boxes scrubbed, bird feeders filled, other chores waiting but I’ve decided to end my blogging hiatus on this rainy and somewhat gloomy Sunday morning. This and my next blog will feature two of my favorite birds and then I hope to treat you with a nesting saga as spring is well underway.

With a lovely ruby-crowned kinglet visiting my yard every year for the past four years, I’ve developed a particular fondness for this tiny avian species. This past autumn and winter, my partiality expanded to include their jeweled cousins, the golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), who seemed to have favored our geographical area with an irruption (an ecological term for a sudden increase in an animal population). Whereas in previous years, I felt lucky to catch a glimpse of a golden crown during their months-long stay in North Carolina, they appeared to be everywhere this past winter and in full view to boot.

 

The golden-crowned kinglets are about the same size as the ruby crowns and similar in overall body color except that they also have a black eyebrow stripe.

While the ruby-crowned males only flash their red crests when mating or upset, however, the golden crowns have a permanent yellow stripe atop their heads.

 

         

The male golden crowns can sometimes be distinguished by the fact that there will be a hint of red in their golden crest.

         

Like the ruby crowns, these little insect foragers are in constant movement as they scour branches, shrubs and plants for a meal. Their varied diet includes beetles, flies, crickets, butterflies, spiders, and bees and wasps. In the winter, they will also eat some seeds.

     

Searching for the insects often means they hang upside down from branches as they look at the underside and in crevices for their next bite to eat.

 

They also hover mid-air to snatch an insect or fly.

The golden crowns sometimes sit still a bit longer than ruby crowns so that you have a chance to get off a few photographic shots before they resume their dietary searching. And this year, one of those photos placed me among the winners in a small local competition.

These birds are not much bigger than hummingbirds, but like the hummers, they also undertake a long migration twice yearly. Their winters are spent throughout North America but for breeding they travel to the far North and mountainous Northwestern areas of this hemisphere.

This year, many places had mild winters but if they arrive in the North before spring-like temperatures arrive, they are able to survive nights as cold as –40 degrees; sometimes, they huddle together to keep a bit of warmth. Their lifespan is several years, with the oldest recorded golden crown being a banded male who was at least 6 years and 4 months when he was recaptured in Minnesota in 1976.

       

 

This species prefers life in coniferous forests but it seems if a few spruce and pines are around, they will settle in. I saw them in a small and somewhat sparsely vegetated area near a senior center, an arboretum, along the Haw River, and in the woods and bogs of various nature reserves.

 

 

In the United States, the number of golden-crowned kinglets declined 75% between 1966 and 2014. Habitat loss has contributed to this. However, spruce reforestation in the Eastern USA may have contributed to a more recently seen increase in numbers of kinglets. I’m very glad that they are not (yet) an endangered species and I hope we get to see them a lot next winter, too!

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.

oriental-bittersweet-8-oriental-bittersweet-img_5343m-de-bruyn-signed   porcelainberry-img_0739-2maria-de-bruyn

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!

grasses-img_1282-maria-de-bruyn-signed-res   aaron-watering-asters-img_0277maria-de-bruyn-signed

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!

Braeburn Farm is for the birds!

I don’t often get the chance to visit a farm (other than organized farm tours, which are a bit pricey and then might be crowded). Last year, I was invited to one during an annual llama shearing, which was educational. This year, however, I’ve had the chance to visit Braeburn Farm four times so far because the owner and manager have decided to make it a nature reserve as well as a cattle farm. Nick, the land manager, is a birder who is more than willing to share his knowledge with the visitors.

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My first visit to this farmland/nature reserve was in the early spring to see Wilson’s snipes at one of the five ponds. By late June, these birds had moved on but the ponds were now harboring mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) and killdeer (Charadrius vociferous).

mallard duck I77A7320© Maria de Bruyn res     red-winged blackbird I77A6920© Maria de Bruyn res

belted kingfisher I77A6936© Maria de Bruyn (2)   killdeer I77A6934© Maria de Bruyn res

My quest to see green herons at one pond was unsuccessful, but my 20-minute walk there was accompanied by the non-stop screaming of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), who called both from tree tops and the air as she circled overhead.

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A non-native bird who might greet you as you come down the road near the farm manager’s home is a helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris), the sole survivor of a neighbor’s flock. This bird now comes to visit the domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) at Braeburn, perhaps seeking some companionship in addition to the easily available chicken feed.

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chicken I77A6949© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm chickens are in a large pen while other chickens run free, including one with a wild hairdo.

A trio of wild turkeys left the woods and entered a field during one of my visits but they were at a considerable distance; still, I could say I had seen them that day! The Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) have often been visible at a distance in the fields, but on my last visit I saw one a bit closer on a fence post, giving me the chance to enjoy its beautiful plumage.

 

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Eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) can be seen in many of the fields and on wires. They take advantage of the ponds to snag dragonfly meals and the dry grasses provide materials for nests.

 

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They also pose very prettily on the shrubbery!

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The grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) are numerous, which was lovely for me as this species was a lifer for me. If you approach on foot, they fly off, but Nick said they are so used to his motorized cart, they stay put as he chugs on by!

 

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In the spring, when we had gone to see the snipes, we were lucky to see savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) running about in the grass (I had at first thought we were seeing field mice scurrying about).

 

 

 

orchard oriole I77A7271© Maria de Bruyn resIn June, a pair of orchard orioles (Icterus scpurius) had built a nest in a tree bordering one pond and I was excited to see two babies just days before they fledged. The father was feeding them and brought one baby a large cricket, which seemed to be too large for it swallow easily. Dad tried to help by pushing it down but when I left, the insect was still sticking out of baby’s mouth and its sibling was still hungry, too.

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barn swallow I77A7161© Maria de Bruyn resThe barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) adopted an abandoned barn as their hotel of choice. When I visited in June, the young had just been fledging; they and their parents were circling the barn and resting on fences nearby, showing off their beautiful colors.

In July, a few stragglers remained in nests. Some that had taken the great leap were hanging around outside, even clutching the barn wall.

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Others were enjoying the view on a wire line, together with some purple martins.

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The fence posts and other farm structures offer resting places for various birds, like the Eastern wood peewee (Contopus virens), chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

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chipping sparrow I77A6665© Maria de Bruyn res   house finch I77A6529© Maria de Bruyn res

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The turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) take advantage of the cattle’s well-water stations to get a drink, but then may retire to a tree branch for a bit of sunning. Nick likes them better than the black vultures, who had killed a newborn calf when its mother wasn’t taking care of it.

 

 

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Northern mockingbird I77A7669© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Other birds, like the Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) enjoy the view from the vantage of high branches in trees.

 

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While the 500-acre farm is mostly advertised in relation to its beef and opportunities to hold events such as receptions there, the farm management is now increasingly promoting it as a place for wildlife observation as well. The biodiversity in birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and plants is wonderful and my next blog will focus on examples of the non-avian wildlife to be seen there. If you’d like to visit the farm, do contact them!

Youthful exuberance in Yellowstone

bison IMG_8457© Maria de Bruyn resOne of the frequent wildlife sightings during a visit to Yellowstone National Park are the bison, also known as American buffalo (Bison bison). Sometimes you see a single individual, sometimes a group of 3-5 animals and often larger groups or even huge herds. Females and their calves and males usually hang out in separate groups except when it is breeding season. The males can be distinguished by their somewhat longer horns, larger size (up to 2000 lbs) and heavier beards.  The babies are reddish-brown for their first 2.5 months of life, whereafter they begin to develop the dark brown coloring of their species.

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bison IMG_4583© Maria de BruynDuring my recent visit, I learned that you should not get out of your car near a buffalo – they may look placid but they will attack if they feel provoked and can run over 30 mph. From 1980-1999, triple the number of people were injured by bison as by bears in Yellowstone! In 2015, five people were gored by buffalo.Unfortunately, some people still will approach, as shown in this 1992 video showing some frightening consequences. You may then have to photograph them through (dirty) unopened car windows, which doesn’t make for excellent photos, but you can record what you see as memory reminders.

bison IMG_4562© Maria de Bruyn resIn the wintertime, the bison have thick shaggy coats and these are shed in the spring, so that you see individuals with bare patches of skin alternating with woolly areas.

A park ranger told me that they rub on trees to help remove their winter coats; there are whole areas of forest where many trees have bare spots devoid of bark as a result. The bison also “horn” trees, mostly in the autumn, rubbing their horns on cedars and pines by preference; the trees then emit a fragrance which is thought to be an insect deterrent.

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Another sign that buffalo are nearby are the bison wallows – these shallow depressions in the ground are used year after year, both during dry and rainy weather. The wallows have multiple functions, including offering dust and mud covering to protect against insects, a place for resting, grooming and play.

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When walking in meadows, along roads and on hillsides, you can often come across bison dung, popularly known as meadow muffins and buffalo chips. These large deposits used to be used as a fire source as they burn well and could be easily gathered.

Given the bison’s size and their habituation to people in the Park, human beings will find that they not infrequently have to share the road with these mammals. They will cross the road from one side to another and sometimes spend some time ambling down the road, so that you can have one pass within about a foot of your car window.

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During these “bison jams”, cars are supposed to stop and give them right of way – we are the intruders in their home after all. You then may see an individual through the car window who has been collared or tagged, presumably for research.

 

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The bison can have very expressive faces, even if at first sight it seems they always have the same expression. This mother demonstrated when she was nursing her calf.

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If you had asked me a month ago which adjectives I might associate with bison, my answer likely would have been something like: massive, placid when undisturbed, woolly, furry, huge, plodding. Playful would not have been on the list, but I discovered that American buffalo babies can be very exuberant and know how to have a good time!

 

A group of three spent quite some time chasing one another, jumping and leaping – one in particular seemed to be the instigator of the play session.

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bison I77A9171© Maria de Bruyn resAt one point, I was in a car where I could observe a group of bison fording a river very near to the road. It was shallow where they entered but grew deeper toward the middle and other side and it turned out there was a strong current. It posed a challenge to the pregnant bison and the babies were really having a tough go. We watched them struggle across, keeping their chins above water as they slowly progressed while being swept downstream from the adults.

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Luckily, all of the babies made it to the other side, including one who thought s/he was going after her/his mother when s/he got to the top of the riverbank. s/he trotted after a smaller bison, then was followed by a much larger female who began butting her/him – turned out the baby may have been confused after the strenuous river crossing because the smaller bison was not going to nurse. The mother kept after the baby until finally the young one turned and realized who mom really was!

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bison I77A1450© Maria de Bruyn resBefore Europeans came to the United States, these magnificent mammals ranged as far as the Atlantic seaboard, meaning they could have been in my neighborhood at one time! Now the wild bison are largely confined to some national parks after almost going extinct in the 19th century and the most genetically pure ones are in Yellowstone. So I’m lucky that I had the chance to observe them several times during my recent trip out West and I’d love to see them there again. 🙂

A walk in the woods with a bit of local history

Ken Moore IMG_6384© Maria de Bruyn resOn a sunny afternoon in mid-April, volunteers at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) had the chance to learn about Bill Hunt, a horticultural expert who donated hundreds of acres of land for environmental conservation to the University of North Carolina. Hunt’s work laid the foundations for the expansion of the Garden with the Hunt Arboretum and the Piedmont Nature Trails in woods behind the cultivated gardens. The trails were “re-dedicated” during a walk to commemorate the Garden’s first public offering, which was originally dedicated on 10 April 1966. A walk in the woods was quite a nice way to help celebrate the NCBG’s 50th birthday.

Ken Moore IMG_6398© Maria de Bruyn resWe learned about how the Nature Trails were created and maintained from Ken Moore, retired assistant director of the NCBG and the Garden’s first employee.

Moore was accompanied by other Garden staff who offered other interesting tidbits of information. For example, Johnny Randall, NCBG Director of Conservation, told us about how Mr. Hunt visited his rhododendron bushes along Morgan Creek and invited friends to swim at Elephant Rock and to forest picnics at his personal grill located creekside, all the while wearing a suit and tie in his beloved woods.

elephant rock IMG_6443© Maria de Bruyn resHunt barbecue IMG_6436© Maria de Bruyn res

Staff pointed out some of the lovely native plants seen in the springtime woods, including plants that were rescued from other sites such as the trilliums.

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Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)                 Virginia pennywort (Obolaria virginica)

The woodsorrels have three-lobed, clover-like leaves.

Common yellow woodsorrelIMG_6429© Maria de Bruyn   Violet woodsorrel IMG_6423© Maria de Bruyn res

.Common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta)   Violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea)

Indian plantain IMG_6439© Maria de Bruyn res         Spotted wintergreen IMG_6434© Maria de Bruyn res

Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum)   Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

We also heard about the non-native and invasive plants that were planted along the Nature Trails before conservationists were aware of how they out-competed native plants for space and nutrients. They pointed out that we should remove such vegetation during our volunteer hours and from our own gardens at home, such as Oriental false hawksbeard (Youngia japonica (L.)), which I realized is nestling in in my yard, too.

Special attention was given to the plant with the delightful name of Italian lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum). There were many clumps of these large-leaved flowers and numerous specimens were blooming. While Ken told us how to identify male and female plants so we could eradicate them, other staff demonstrated how to uproot them with gusto.

Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6481© Maria de Bruyn res          Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6494© Maria de Bruyn res

Listening IMG_6499© Maria de Bruyn res

As we climbed out of the woods after a couple hours, some last words were said about invasive plants and then Ken sped ahead to greet everyone as we re-entered the demonstration gardens. He kindly offered participants a small booklet about Bill Hunt’s life, a nice gift to commemorate 50 years of the Garden. It will be interesting to think about what the next 50 years might bring.

Ken Moore Ed Harrison IMG_6524© Maria de Bruyn resrue anemone windflower IMG_6450© Maria de Bruyn res                       IMG_6466© Maria de Bruyn res

IMG_6468© Maria de Bruyn res                   IMG_6458© Maria de Bruyn res Wild comfrey (right, Cynoglossum virginianum)