Autumn amblings — seeing insects, birds, a snake and two surprises

It’s been challenging lately to know what to expect as far as weather goes in our area. Following tropical storms Florence and Michael, we’ve had several more episodes of drenching downpours that caused local flooding and closed off some natural areas. The temperatures have gone down to freezing or below in the morning and then have risen to 50-60s F (10-16C); this has sometimes led to steam rising from fence posts and some flowers still blooming which usually would have died by now. This morning, I skipped my walk as the temperature was below freezing with wind, so I re-lived some visits this past month to the Brumley Nature Preserve North. If you, too, are inside sheltering from the weather, perhaps you’ll have the time to amble photographically through this long Brumley walk with me.

Some parts of the reserve are still fairly green, which creates a lovely ambience for leisurely strolling and nature observations. In other cases, we can see the arrival of late autumn and approaching winter. This picturesque tree, one of three near a pond that harbor various bird species, was still very green in late September; now these forest denizens are showing off their gnarly “bare bones”.

     

So some early mornings are quite nippy and others a bit milder, with dried plants glistening with spider webs and dew drops that sparkle in the sun.

 

Some of the insects emerge with the sun to bask in the golden light, like this seed bug (Orsellinae, left), whose coloring camouflages it well against the seed heads, short-horned grasshopper, American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) and different color variations of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) who were hanging out on the dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

 

   

Various birds have been enjoying the winter seeds and especially the winter berries, like the red multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and beige poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).    

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite fond of berries.

They travel back and forth between fruit-laden trees and dried grass seedheads, occasionally stopping on paths to find worms and insects.

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) also like to gorge on berries, often sharing trees with American robins who enjoy the same meal. Sometimes snagging a berry involves some acrobatic moves.

  

The waxwings are adept at these moves and I only occasionally saw one drop a fruit. They are such elegant birds with their black masks and subtle touches of red on the wings and yellow on the tail feathers.

 

One of my favorite bird species, the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), are also fond of berries. They like suet in gardens but no suet feeders are found in the reserve.
Some of the larger birds, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), also look for berries and insects as they mostly stay high up in the trees.

 

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are another species that enjoy late autumn fruit.

  

In early November, I had my first of two delightful surprises at Brumley. It was early morning and as I glanced up at some very tall trees, I spotted movement among the earth-toned leaves. My lens revealed a yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – and when I entered it into my bird list for the day, eBird asked me to justify having seen it as it was a rarity this late in the year.

Two other birds that are not surprises but also a joy to see are the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and colorful Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

  

It’s always worthwhile to look all around when you walk, not only up at trees if you are a birder or at eye level if you like mammals. I take a lot of bird photos, because I love birds and because they are often easier to see than other wildlife species. But I consider myself more a “wildlifer” than a “birder” since I really am interested in all kinds of animals. That now stands me in good stead during the high-precipitation events we’ve been having. The ponds are filled to capacity and then some, with water flowing over the banks and onto paths.

In some cases, the high humidity has been great for plants; bryophytes are shooting up sporophytes which carry their reproductive spores. As there are over 600 mosses, liverworts and hornworts in North Carolina, I didn’t get the scientific ID for this species.

The rains created new temporary water-filled gullies, where chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have been enjoying baths along with other birds.

 

  

This earthworm (Lumbricina) obviously decided it had to get out of the water-logged earth for a while and I was glad not to have squashed it as I walked along. Its slow progress along the path may not have aided it, though, because there were plenty of robins and other worm-eaters in the vicinity.

 

A large Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) was sunning next to a path after the rains as well.

   

So my last visit to Brumley, when I was hoping to capture a golden-crowned kinglet digitally, did not fulfill that hope but ended by giving me a great surprise – my first sighting of a beaver (Castor canadensis) at this reserve. A colleague had seen one there, I’d noted the gnawed tree near the pond, and I had figured out where the lodge was, but I had not yet seen the mammal in the early mornings. Shortly before reaching the pond, I’d stopped to chat with dog owners and mentioned that a beaver was there but I hadn’t seen it yet. Ten minutes later – at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, there s/he was!

It was so surprising to see the aquatic mammal cruising the pond, swimming in large and small circles. As it created small waves and wakes with its head, I pondered why this largely (but not solely!) crepuscular animal was out in the open with people walking by. S/he must have just really wanted to have a good long swim because the animal was out and about for a few hours.

 

Three times, the beaver slapped its tail and dove under with a huge splash when people with dogs strolled by – three times, I missed getting that shot but I did manage to get a photo when the beaver took a time out at the entrance to the lodge.

That was an exciting wildlife spotting – not only did I get to see an animal I rarely see but it was also exhibiting a behavior that I witnessed for the first time. (Previously, I’d seen them harvesting and transporting food to the lodge, chewing bark and felling trees.) As I often go to Brumley in the mornings, being there in the afternoon had another advantage as well – I got to witness a spectacular autumn sunset with the sky almost seeming like a kaleidoscope as the clouds and sun’s rays created rapidly changing skies. I’m looking forward already to my next foray to this reserve!

Mammal merriment, misery and markings

Lately, many of my blogs have been about birds, mostly because they have been the easiest wildlife to photograph during the colder months. The mammals – and insects, reptiles and amphibians – have not been around much and likely have often visited when I’m not watching. I’m fairly certain that raccoons (Procyon lotor) and opossums (Didelphis virginiana) come to my yard after dark; perhaps the odd fox or coyote does as well. Nevertheless, after she stopped weaning her young and since summer ended, I haven’t seen Raquel raccoon all winter.

raccoon DK7A4351© Maria de Bruyn   raccoon DK7A4248© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern chipmunk I77A8790© Maria de Bruyn resThere a couple mammals, however, that I can count on to see every day because they have grown accustomed to having a food source at my house. Fallen bird seed (and seed and apples put out deliberately for ground feeders) does not get entirely gobbled up by the avian visitors, leaving pickings for the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

The squirrels keep a watch from the trees and underbrush and appear very quickly after the bird seed is replenished. My combined squirrel and raccoon baffles – and placing the feeder poles at least 10 feet away from any structures from which they launch themselves onto the poles – have proved successful in keeping them from the feeders. But they continue to look for vantage points from which they can attempt a jump to the feeders.

Eastern gray squirrel I77A5504© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern gray squirrel I77A5494© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_3643 mdb

 

Before I learned how to thwart them, they made off with plenty of seed and suet – one squirrel even carrying off the entire suet feeder when s/he couldn’t get it open. I saw it happening and chased that squirrel, but they were faster than me!

They will share space happily with birds but don’t always want to share with other squirrels or chipmunks.

 

 

Eastern gray squirrel I77A8350© Maria de Bruyn Eastern gray squirrel I77A0711© Maria de Bruyn res

The chipmunks don’t let that selfish attitude deter them; they just keep a sharp eye out for when a squirrel might turn on them. They wolf down seed after seed, giving themselves a very fat-cheeked countenance!

Eastern chipmunk I77A3326© Maria de Bruyn  Eastern chipmunk I77A3335© Maria de Bruyn

The past few days, the squirrels have continued their chasing, but now it is not always in rivalry or play. Instead, their romantic side is showing and the merriment goes on for a good length of time. They appear to have designated a particular tree stump/snag in my back yard as their trysting spot.

Eastern gray squirrel I77A1104© Maria de Bruyn res              Eastern gray squirrel I77A0980© Maria de Bruyn

white-tailed deer I77A0963© Maria de Bruyn resThe white-tailed deer carry on their mating elsewhere but I know it’s happening as the males are evidence. Usually, one small family group comes to my home – mom, her one-year-old daughter and one-year-old son (a button buck, so-called for his tiny little antler nubs). They were occasionally accompanied by a couple second-year bucks with little antlers – I suspect mama’s sons from the previous year.

white-tailed deer I77A1367© Maria de Bruyn res    white-tailed deer I77A2025© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1366© Maria de Bruyn res

 

One of them lost one of his antlers early, but whether this was the result of a fight or accident is unknown to me. It seems that mama has allowed an orphaned button buck to join their group occasionally, too.

A couple weeks ago, two of the older males came down from the woods in search of does and food in the cold weather. This pair was traveling together but that didn’t stop some rivalry where first-access to the available food was concerned.

 

white-tailed deer I77A1061© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer I77A1005© Maria de Bruyn res

 

white-tailed deer I77A1127© Maria de Bruyn res  white-tailed deer I77A1150© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1893© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Then one day about a week ago when we had some very icy weather, I was surprised by a new and unfamiliar family group for a day. I didn’t mind them eating some seed and the resident family wasn’t around to chase them away. But then I felt immensely sad as I saw that one of them had been injured. Her tongue was lolling out but it was only when she came into the yard that I saw she must have been in an accident.

 

I felt miserable for her, seeing her face had been smashed in but after watching for a while, I realized the accident must have happened some time ago as she had no open wounds.

white-tailed deer I77A1917© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer I77A1869© Maria de Bruyn

It must have been terribly painful though. I decided to call her Camelia as her profile reminded me of a camel.

white-tailed deer I77A1932© Maria de Bruyn res   white-tailed deer I77A1906© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1887© Maria de Bruyn res

I put out some soft bread for her because I don’t know how easily she can eat. She does seem well-fed, however, so perhaps her disability is not hampering her nutritional intake. I haven’t seen her or her family again and don’t know if they will ever return, but it reminded me of how many deer are hurt and killed in accidents. I continue to think it would be worthwhile for research to continue on reducing deer populations through contraceptive use.

 

Beaver DK7A4173©Maria de Bruyn resOutside my yard, I’ve been seeing many signs of beavers (Castor canadensis) in the parks and reserves I visit. Their teeth are strong and I recently learned why their teeth are reddish brown – the enamel contains iron!

 

They have left tree stumps, half-gnawed trees and detached trees that they have apparently not yet been able to drag over to their dams and dens.

beaver tree I77A2950© Maria de Bruyn res  beaver I77A0313© Maria de Bruyn res

beaver I77A0125© Maria de Bruyn res  beaver I77A0098© Maria de Bruyn res

One downed tree in particular looked to me like they had been working on a bird sculpture!

beaver I77A0090© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Eastern chipmunk I77A6221© Maria de Bruyn resI’m guessing that some of the other animals will be coming out in the daytime soon around my home – at the very least, the frogs and rabbits, whom I have seen only very occasionally. Spring is coming and while I enjoy seasonal variety, I will welcome it with open arms!

Winter mornings at Jordan Lake

Mist on the lake I77A5266© Maria de BruynSpending two cold early mornings at Jordan Lake the past couple weeks reinforced my conviction that getting out into nature is a restorative and calming activity. And it doesn’t need to be warm. Although a doctor pronounced me healed after my recent hospitalization and home treatment, it turns out that I’m not completely healthy after all. Starting a new treatment was a bit stressful, but seeing the birds at the lake was a joy.

snag I77A6203© Maria de Bruyn res

Mind you, I’d love to see other wildlife there, but the mammals, reptiles and amphibians have been hiding out or keeping away from areas frequented by people. The fact that it is still hunting season probably makes some of them somewhat shy, too. I did manage to see a fly on one morning though.

fly I77A2979© Maria de Bruyn

The animals do leave behind signs of their presence, however. Tracks in the sand is one give-away that they passed by.

animal tracks I77A2998© Maria de Bruyn res

The beavers (Castor canadensis) leave behind distinctively gnawed tree stumps – and here you can also see one tree that they haven’t quite finished felling yet.

beaver tree I77A2933© Maria de Bruyn res beaver tree I77A2950© Maria de Bruyn res

The shoreline vegetation was decorated with gull feathers in various areas of the lake.

bird feather I77A2711© Maria de Bruyn res bird feather I77A2697© Maria de Bruyn res

heron track I77A2924© Maria de Bruyn res

 

A sandy track of what I assumed was a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) didn’t produce a bird at that site, but I saw these beauties in flight at two other sites.

 

great blue heron I77A3926© Maria de Bruyn res

great blue heron I77A2558© Maria de Bruyn res

At one area, I spotted a bird that seemed unfamiliar just as it was turning to take off. Friendly birders online identified it as an American pipit (Anthus rubescens), the first time I had seen this species (known as a “lifer” among the birding crowd). The next week I saw a killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) in the same spot but got a better shot.

American pipit I77A2526© Maria de Bruynkilldeer I77A5908© Maria de Bruyn

The killdeer didn’t hang around too long either, but I was able to get a couple of nice flight photos this time.

killdeer I77A5933© Maria de Bruyn res killdeer I77A5931© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow I77A2810© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were foraging in the shoreline woods, while the song sparrow was looking for food among the woody detritus left at lakeside.

 

song sparrow I77A5877© Maria de Bruyn res song sparrow I77A5866© Maria de Bruyn res

In another place, the crows were very loudly making their presence known – it turned out that a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was perched nearby and they were making sure everyone knew the hawk was there.

red-tailed hawk I77A3850© Maria de Bruyn resAmerican crow I77A3878© Maria de Bruyn res

In the trees near the lake, various birds could be seen: the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) was very busy as usual, flying from a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) to other trees in rapid succession.

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A5662© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A6049© Maria de Bruyn

At one site, there were many dark-eyed juncos foraging on the ground and taking pauses in the trees and shrubs around. Juncos are actually a type of sparrow and a group of sparrows is known by several names: a crew, a flutter, a meinie, a quarrel and an ubiquity.

dark-eyed junco I77A2838© Maria de Bruyn dark-eyed junco I77A2379© Maria de Bruyn

The downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were in evidence at various lake sites.

downy woodpecker I77A2504© Maria de Bruyn resRed-bellied woodpecker I77A5384© Maria de Bruyn res

Overhead, the double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew by; they would land and share space with the ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis).

 

double-crested cormorant I77A2731© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A3558© Maria de Bruyn res

ring-billed gull I77A2389© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The ring-billed gulls were numerous and occasionally one swooped down to fish not too far from shore.

ring-billed gull I77A5489© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A5497© Maria de Bruyn res

While I was watching, the horned grebes (Odiceps auritus) were more successful in getting meals as they dove into the cold water.

Horned grebe I77A3662© Maria de Bruynhorned grebe I77A3094© Maria de Bruyn

belted kingfisher I77A4014© Maria de BruynA couple times I was very surprised by a bird that suddenly seemed to emerge out of nowhere to fly over my head or just in front of me. That was the case with a beautiful male wood duck (Aix sponsa) and a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).

 

wood duck I77A3719© Maria de Bruyn res wood duck I77A3718© Maria de Bruyn res

bald eagle I77A3030© Maria de BruynAn adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) soared by just as I was approaching an observation platform in one area; the distance and height were considerable but I managed a shot. A Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) flew by a little lower, while a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) sat still for a portrait.

 

Bonaparte's gull I77A3962© Maria de Bruyn

 

Carolina chickadee I77A5806© Maria de Bruyn res

My last avian companions during my latest lake walk were a white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and a lovely hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus).

white-throated sparrow I77A6115© Maria de Bruynhermit thrush I77A6165© Maria de Bruyn

I returned home on both occasions a satisfied birder!