An evening at Bolin Creek

After a day waiting for four bluebirds to fledge (next blog!) and a health-care appointment, I decided to forego some chores and instead to spend some time at a bridge over Bolin Creek, a waterway in the local Carolina North Forest which belongs to the University of North Carolina. My naturalist friend Mary discovered that this spot is a favorite bathing spot for birds in the late afternoon and evening. Since the weather forecasters predicted rain most afternoons this week, I decided to make a quick foray there while I had the chance. I knew that photographing the wildlife could be difficult as the sky was dull, overcast and we were expecting a downpour but I was up for the challenge. And once in a while a bit of brightness emerged from behind the clouds to give me some encouragement.

At first, it seemed very quiet – no bird song or buzzing insects; I thought perhaps everyone was hunkering down in anticipation of a coming rainstorm. But then the sky lightened a bit and a handsome robber fly (Promachus) alighted on a nearby leaf. I think this is a red-footed cannibal fly; these insects look like little old men to me.

 

 

A little while later, there were suddenly three avian visitors. The female Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) was the first to take a bath.

     

 

The blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) didn’t go to the water but flitted overhead.

 

The first of two American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) also hopped from branch to branch but eventually ducked behind some rocks to bathe.

A pair of damselflies hung out on the stream rocks; the blue-tipped dancer’s (Argia tibialis) dark purple made it look almost black in the twilight.

 

 

Then a beautiful female hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) came by for a bath. Her golden feathers shone in the dark foliage and against the stream rocks.

 

 

 

A pair of gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) came together but only one entered the stream for a thorough drenching of its plumage.

 

 

 

   

The redstarts returned but stayed on the branches as the daylight began leaking away.

A few other birds were in the vicinity but didn’t come near: American crows, Northern cardinals, a common grackle and two yellow-billed cuckoos. My visit ended when the sky really darkened — I started down the path in an effort to reach my car before the rain began. A Southern leopard frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus) crossed in front of me and paused in the grass, enabling me to get a quick portrait. And then a nettle of beautiful violet color called out for a photo, too. I made it to the car just as the first raindrops fell. Quite an enjoyable impromptu photography session!

The beautiful “baker” bird

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to observe a small bird at close quarters that I had only seen in a couple glimpses in the past, the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla). Like the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, this little avian also has a stripe atop its head. Like the golden-crowned kinglet, the stripe is always visible and orange in color, blending in nicely with its other muted brownish and cream colors.

 

The ovenbird gets its name from the shape of its nest, which is built on the ground in a shape reminiscent of an outdoor or Hopi oven. It is domed and has a side entrance and can be difficult to see.

The ovenbirds spend the winters in the Caribbean region and Central America and then come North for the summer breeding season. My sightings of the singing male have been at our local nature reserve, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, where I volunteer as an invasive plant eradicator and sometime planter of native flowers.

 

The male sings a three- to-five note call in the spring as part of his courting behavior and the call varies among individuals. When males are in neighboring territories, they will sing together in duets and it can be difficult to know how many birds are singing.

   

The sound is so loud that you expect to see a much larger bird and his song inspired poet Robert Frost to dedicate a poem to him.

 

If he is sitting on a branch, you can eventually find him but it can be a challenge since they prefer to reside in forests with heavy canopy cover so that it is fairly dark.

 

   

Once you see him, you may be able to watch for a while as they don’t seem to be very wary of people. This individual let me observe as he groomed on a low tree branch, pausing now and again to let out a few notes.

  

   

These birds prefer areas with heavy leaf litter for their homes – the leaves provide cover for their ground nests and they blend in really, really well as they scurry about foraging in the leaves for insects, worms and snails to eat. Both the females and males participate in feeding the fledglings until they can fly at about 30 days.

When they emerge into a patch with a bit of sunlight filtering down through the leaves overhead, you have a bit better chance to see them. Otherwise, you may end up staring at ground cover until you catch a bit of movement and can zero in on the motion to see them.

 

Photographing the bird is a challenge since they spend their time in areas with so little direct light. My first photos were a bit dark, but then I increased the ISO on my camera considerably (a tip from fellow photographer, Mary – thanks!) and the photos were a bit better. Still, the somewhat darker photos reflect the environment in which you discover these little troubadour warblers. Now that I know where to look for them, I hope to see them more often in years to come.

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!

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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!

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-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.

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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