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.



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

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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.


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-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.


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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.

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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.



Red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus)


Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea)


Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)



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 ~


The great escape and the pesky yet enticing squirrel!

Jonahay IMG_7882©Maria de Bruyn resSo, in honor of International Cat Day 2014, a departure from wildlife to celebrate my family cats. My household is currently graced with three feline companions, two males and a female. Jonahay, the senior cat, is 15.5 years old and the only one allowed to go outside now and again. According to my vet, he is the strongest cat and most stubborn cat he has met – it has taken two guys over 6 feet tall to try and hold him down to get a pill into him. In the end, they gave him a shot while he was immobilized.

In his younger years, he would occasionally hunt – not to eat anyJonahay IMG_2930©Maria de Bruyn resthing but to bring interesting, living and moving “toys” inside. Over time, I had to remove birds, a baby rabbit, chipmunks, garter snake and field mouse from inside the house. During that time, only a couple birds and a couple mice did not survive when he clamped down a bit hard to prevent them from getting away or me taking them from him. Now, he will sit in the yard or rest on the front porch rocker with a squirrel or bird two feet away and just cast them a glance. The only creature that will rouse him for a chase is a chipmunk – for some reason, he still finds them too cool to leave alone.

Moasi IMG_3418©Maria de Bruyn resMoasi, my 4-year-old female tortoise shell, and Oginali (Ogi for short), a 4-year-old flamepoint Siamese, are strictly indoor cats. Well, as strict as I can keep it, as you will see further on. Moasi would not mind going outside and has made it outdoors twice but she stayed right by the house. In the house and screened-in back porch, she will hunt mice and insects.

Her fascination with insects has been to her detriment a couple times. Once I took her to the vet because she was foaming at tMoasi IMG_4141©Maria de Bruyn reshe mouth and in obvious distress – she had likely eaten a stink bug, which is not a good thing for cats. About a week ago, she yelped with an open mouth and had some pain; a wasp that had gotten into the porch was gone.

Ogi also has a hunting instinct but his fascination is squirrels. When inside, he will occasionally join Moasi in getting a mouse but his great ambition is to catch a squirrel. He watches quite carefully when I open the back door to go out into the yard and despite my caution, over the years he has managed to escape about 5 times. He fortunately will stay in the yard but will not let me catch him; I just have to be patient and wait for his return.

Ogi IMG_0512©Maria de Bruyn resOgi IMG_0365©Maria de Bruyn res

Once he is outdoors, he will track and stalk the squirrels. They are not very fearsome as they learned that Jonahay will leave them alone. They wait until Ogi nears about two feet, and then either stroll or scamper away, depending on their mood.

Ogi IMG_0441©Maria de Bruyn resOgi IMG_0410©Maria de Bruyn res

The oOgi IMG_2968©Maria de Bruyn resther day, Ogi made another great escape. He hung out by the ground feeding station and stayed put until one deer came too close.

He then began stalking, one squirrel after another. One squirrel began taunting him. The squirrel got up on a fence about three feet above Ogi and waited until he was very near before jumping into a tree.

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_0487©Maria de Bruyn resEastern gray squirrel IMG_0491©Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_2998©Maria de Bruyn resAt one point, the squirrel got into a crepe myrtle about 3 feet above ground. Ogi approached and was just about to jump up when the squirrel darted down and looked like he was going to smack Ogi with his paw. I sprinted toward the tree and yelled so the squirrel changed direction and went up. Ogi, of course, was quite disappointed. He has come very close to capturing a squirrel during a chase but just missed – to my relief.

After that, the squirrel jumped down and led Ogi on a merry chase through the yard, sometimes stopping until Ogi got a bit close and then continuing to run.


Panting with exhaustion – or excitement – Ogi laid down to rest for a while. After about 90 minutes, he condescended to come back inside. Keeping him an indoor cat will remain a challenge for sure!

Ogi IMG_0461©Maria de Bruyn res

Next blog – Hoppers!

Deer and their curiosity

Don-tso and Schatje were both very sweet animals who enriched my life, but they were very different personalities. Don-tso, whose Native American name represented a spirit who sits by your shoulder and warns you of danger, lived up to that name. She was a delicate small cat, rescued as a feral kitten from the streets of Amsterdam, who remained anxious and extremely cautious throughout her life. Even after a decade, I could not approach and pick her up; time spent on my lap was always on her terms and at times of her choosing. She was nevertheless very loving and brave.

Schatje (Dutch word for “dear”) was a wild deer who chose to befriend me and one other neighbor, approaching us as a young doe. We are usually warned not to let urban deer grow accustomed to us as this can endanger them – when they trust people, it makes them vulnerable to those who want to hurt or eradicate them. Schatje was so persistent, however, that I broke that rule and got to know her very well over a five-year period.

Jonahay and Schatje IMG_1752 ©Maria de BruynBoth Don-tso and Schatje were very curious. This came home to me one summer day when a strange incident occurred. My other cat, Jonahay, had become agitated when Schatje came near and when I tried to move him away, he displaced his aggression and attacked Don-tso who was nearest to him. As I tried to intervene between Jonahay and Don-tso, I felt a nudge behind me – Schatje had marched up and was trying to get a good look at what was happening! As she approached, little Don-tso gathered up her courage and stood her ground – she was actually ready to spring at Schatje, who was considerably larger! I finally got Don-tso and Jonahay into the house and things calmed down.

Don-tso says not too close M de BruynOver the years, as I’ve watched Schatje’s family and other deer visit my yard, it’s become apparent how observant and curious they are. Undoubtedly, their curiosity plays a role in their survival skills – it pays for them to notice changes in the environment that could pose a danger or threat to their well-being. Sudden changes – movement and sound – will evoke the well-known white-tailed deer response where they raise their tails like warning flags and stamp their feet.

Ne-zhoni alarm©Maria de Bruyn

In other cases, however, when something in the environment has changed during their absence, they will investigate. Scientists believe that this curiosity provides them with information that can be helpful in knowing, for example, where they might find new sources of food or possible obstacles in their way when they want to make a quick escape. When I have made new additions to my yard, some of the deer – most noticeably Schatje and her offspring – have taken quite some time to examine them through sight, smell and touch.

Schatje looks at bird photo ©Maria de Bruyn

If new yard art moves, it may take a while before they approach and some individuals will never get close. Others are braver, however, like these young ones; the doe exploring the whirling bird did so after about four days of cautious investigation, coming a bit closer each day.

deer with whirling bird IMG_5574© Maria de Bruyn resattracted to toys ©Maria de Bruyn

 The deer can also be curious about other animals, like this fawn who wanted to get close to a squirrel – who definitely was not interested in any togetherness.

Deer with squirrel IMG_2151©Maria de BruynWhile I may not meet another deer who is as trustingly curious as Schatje, her descendants will most likely continue to explore my yard and satisfy their curiosity about any changes happening here. And in doing so, they will help satisfy some of my curiosity about deer behavior!