Marvelous mammals, part 1 – at the homestead

Judging from how many blogs I’ve written about birds, you might assume that I’m mainly a devotee of avian wildlife but that is certainly not the case. Without a doubt, I do love birds, but I really enjoy observing, learning about and photographing all kinds of other wildlife.  Fortunately, my own yard provides me with some opportunities for that as I have a number of regular mammalian visitors. Sometimes, their visits entail a bit of drama but often their presence is quite peaceful.

The Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) like to visit the front porch to see if there’s something of interest among the potted plants or to take a drink from a water source.

These cute little rodents are more than willing to mingle with the ground-feeding birds looking for seed under the feeders. They scurry away as fast as their little legs will carry them when birds of prey appear – and they can certainly run quickly!

 

When it’s very cold, I sometimes offer them a small tray of seed just for themselves on the porch. They scarf down the goodies, filling their cheek pouches to what seems like almost bursting before dashing away to store the goodies for later consumption.

 

A pair of Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) lives in my yard and both mom and dad are very good about taking care of their young. I don’t see them much in the winter but expect they will be out and about again in the spring, doing their “leapfrogging” courtship ritual.

When it’s breeding season, I may see raccoons (Procyon lotor) in the daytime but lately they have been coming to the yard at night to pick up whatever seed is left on the ground from the daytime visitors. My wildlife cam caught a not-so-clear photo of this happening.

Another visitor who mostly comes at night is the opossum (Didelphis virginiana), one of my favorites given their propensity to eat lots and lots of ticks! Many people seem to think that they are ugly or scary, but I actually think they are kind of cute.

The largest mammalian visitors I see daily are the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). I’ve loved them ever since I got to know a particular individual, whom I named Schatje (Dutch for “dear”). She approached me when she was a yearling and made friends with me, sitting next to me in the grass and thereafter bringing her newborn fawns to the yard right after their births. She unfortunately died in a car accident after some years, but through her I learned to really appreciate these mammals.

Some people dislike deer intensely because they eat their flowers and prized shrubs. But I’ve found that consistent application of a deer repellent on my plants keeps them off the vegetation that I want to preserve. Also, I let them eat bird seed and sometimes apple slices that I put out for the ground-feeding birds like white-throated sparrows, Eastern towhees, dark-sided juncos, American crows (the apple lovers) and brown thrashers.

So I’ve been watching the deer for many years now and a very odd occurrence happened over the past half year. At least four deer have appeared with broken hind legs or feet. When “Mama”, a doe with twins, showed up with a terrible break on her leg, I wondered if it happened when she jumped a fence. The bone was jutting out and it was obviously very painful. She hobbled on three legs.

What was amazing was the fact that her two-year-old son began caring for her. He already had a nice set of antlers and by rights should have left to join the stag group in the neighborhood, but he stayed with her and tended the wound, licking it, and also grooming her! I had not heard of a stag doing that before, so I named him Sweetie. He stayed with her for months!

Mama kept caring for her twins (a male and female). (The past couple years, she had only had male offspring so that cut down on the number of deer we might otherwise have had). And she tended her wound on her own as well.

Mama also had to withstand the advances of the dominant neighborhood stag, who was intent on mating with her. Sweetie tried to be there to fend off the interloper, but he had to give in and move off as he was no match for the big buck. Mama tried to get away, but he kept trying to mount her – unsuccessfully, since her back quarters would collapse as she could not bear any weight on the broken leg. She finally got away and ran, which must have been terribly painful for her.

 

Mama could not stand up for herself with the hurt leg so she began being bullied by another doe who showed up. That deer, who I called Bossy, was ill-tempered and a bit nasty; she even would chase her own son away from seed on the ground, even when her son also got a broken leg!

Then two adult males turned up with breaks – one had a broken foot. I wondered if someone was feeding them deer corn, which can be bad for their health and affect their hooves so that perhaps leg breaks would happen more easily. Or was someone taking potshots at them? It remains a mystery, but I’ve learned that the deer can overcome something like this although the healing takes months.

And then we come to my “nemesis” yard mammal, the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). As all bird-feeding people know, squirrels will do their utmost to eat all and any bird food that is put out — this has generated an industry devoted to producing squirrel baffles and “squirrel-proof” feeders. Even when I had smeared a bit of suet on a holly bush for the ruby-crowned kinglet who was sometimes crowded away from the feeder, a squirrel discovered the treat there and consumed what s/he could.

I’ve been fairly fortunate in having the baffles work until recently, when a couple squirrels used their little brains to figure out ways to get around them. It was my belief that I had put the feeder poles sufficiently far from the roof or large tree branches so that the squirrel couldn’t make the leap. One kept trying over and over and finally succeeded in lengthening his/her “long jump”!

I moved the poles further away. But two poles were about five feet apart and I then saw a squirrel use a strategy that really looked very clever to me. S/he would take a run at one pole, launch him/herself onto the pole at high velocity just under the baffle and then turn to vault from that height up and over the baffles on the neighboring pole! I really did admire the creature’s ingenuity and gained a new respect for their intelligence.

After moving the feeder poles further apart, I then noticed that a couple feeders on one pole were being emptied quickly. Looking out my window one day, I saw a squirrel perched atop the pole, enjoying seed after having managed to move the baffles down the pole. How was s/he doing that?

 

I set aside time to watch and discovered the squirrel’s secret.

 

The animal was hanging onto the raccoon baffle, biting it and jerking down at the same time. This eventually loosened the screws in the apparatus on which the baffle rested so that the baffle finally slid down the pole!

 

The screws have now been tightened and the next move is up to the squirrels. They are clever and tenacious. This was further brought home to me when a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) recently landed on a squirrel nest and did its best to extricate the mammal with its claws. The hawk eventually had to leave without its envisioned meal.

The yard mammals are certainly entertaining. If any of you readers have had interesting experiences with them, I’d love to hear about them in comments on this blog’s page! (Except for cats running free outside – goodbye from my two indoor cats, Ogi and Moasi!)

A cuckoo causing confusion and consternation, delight and distress….

In the spring this year, I and another birder had the uncommon pleasure of seeing yellow-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus americanus) courting at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. These birds often stay high in trees, hidden by leaves, so it is always a treat to see one of them out in the open. Seeing two together, as the male tenderly offered his lady love a gift, was an unexpected pleasure.

 

 

Also unexpected have been my more frequent sightings of cuckoos in my yard. Last year, I had caught a glimpse of one in a crepe myrtle tree; I thought it was a lucky fluke. This year, I began to see cuckoos in the large trees of my front yard more often, though frequently they were half hidden behind the leaves of the willow oak, red cedar and persimmon. I did hear their identifying calls so I knew when they were around but not in sight.

Then, this past Sunday afternoon as I sat on my front porch photographing birds and insects visiting my flower garden, I suddenly caught sight of a cuckoo flapping about on a makeshift trellis I had arranged around an oak stump where I hope Carolina jasmine and other climbing vines will create a pleasing area.

The spot is popular with chipmunks and Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), as well as many smaller birds like Renee, one of the banded Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) living in my yard.

     

But to see a large cuckoo sprawled on the branches was unexpected and I feared that it had an injured wing after escaping from a hawk attack. I took a few quick photos. Then I approached to get a better look — the bird tried to flutter away but didn’t get far.

I ran inside to get a box and the phone number of a local wildlife rehabilitator. I left a message and managed to get the bird in the box, to which it protested vigorously. When I closed the top, it calmed down and then the rehabilitator returned my call stating that perhaps it was a fledgling – I said it looked like the wing was injured so she asked me to take a photo of it.

When she saw my point-and-shoot camera photo, she said it wasn’t clear whether it was a juvenile or not and asked me to photograph the beak. Young birds have a yellow or bright “lining” where the beak meets the face. This area is called the gape flange and in most birds, the color disappears as they age and the beak becomes firmer.

      

With a slightly better photo of the bird’s head and beak, the rehabilitator informed me that this was indeed a young bird. She also told me that the bird probably was feigning a wing injury to get the parents to come back more quickly with food! On her recommendation, I put the bird back on a stump by the makeshift lattice.

I knew about killdeer adults pretending to have a broken wing and dragging it on the ground to lead predators away from a nesting area. The yellow-billed cuckoo adults will also do this distraction display.

But I had not heard of fledglings engaging in this ruse. The rehabilitator said she had known of crow fledglings that kept this up a couple days, although she didn’t realize cuckoos would do this as she doesn’t get many calls about this species. But, she commented, “birds aren’t stupid; a free meal is a free meal.”

I kept checking on the bird and it stayed on the stump quite a while. Then it hopped down into the leaf litter and made its way over to some large rocks under a cedar tree with low-hanging branches. First, the cuckoo just hung out on the rock. And all this time, it kept that wing stretched out.

Then the bird lunged upward to get onto the branch. At this point, I seriously wondered whether it wasn’t injured after all, perhaps having fallen out of the nest and hurting its wing when it landed. It got a purchase on the limb and continued to keep its wing out. Then it fell off the branch.

       

After a short rest on the rock, the fledgling jumped up on to the branch again and stayed there. I went inside and returned periodically to check on him/her. About 3.5 hours from time I first saw him/her, the bird was still resting on the branch with the wing out. S/he was no longer wary when I came to look but viewed me calmly.

About 30 minutes later, I went back outside for another check and found the bird on the branch, but now with its wings both folded in towards its body. I was really glad that it appeared to be ok and hoped the parents would come for it. I had heard them calling earlier in the afternoon but never saw them approach the offspring, though this may have happened when I went inside for brief periods. And when I finally looked at the first photos I had shot in quick succession, I saw a couple where the bird had drawn in both wings to hop about, only to stretch out its wing later again.

 

When it was almost time for me to leave for a theater engagement with a friend, I went back out to check one more time and discovered my cuckoo friend was gone. I examined the cedar tree to see if it was further up, as well as the trees and ground all around, and could find no sign of him/her. I hoped that s/he finally decided to give up the display and just flew to a better place. I did check the area the next two days but did not see the bird again.

Then, this morning, a distressing finding started off my day. When I went outside, a neighbor boy was staring at the ground in front of my street-side willow oak. When I got there, the cuckoo lay dead at the street edge. He said he had seen the bird yesterday sitting on the road “with a broken wing”. I wish I had seen it – I don’t know if the bird had really been injured after all, was feigning an injury and then fell prey to a neighbor’s cat (which is what I think happened as its underside looked like it might have been in a cat’s mouth), or if something else occurred. In any event, it was such a sad discovery.

I buried the cuckoo while regretting how short its life was. I’m glad I don’t let my cats roam about anymore and I wish neighbors would also keep their felines inside, even though I know that birds might fall prey to a hawk or die because of a disease. But I wish I’d been able to help this beautiful young bird. My emotions tell me the cuckoos won’t return but my mind says they won’t avoid the yard because they lost an offspring. Time will tell.

 

 

 

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

 

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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

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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!

Patient fishers of the bird world

great blue heron IMG_8830© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s not uncommon for visitors to our ponds, lakes and rivers to see what look like tall, statuesque bird sculptures on shorelines. The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) – North America’s largest heron species – can stand for long periods without moving or only slightly tilting their heads as they exercise extreme patience in their quest for a morning, midday or evening meal.

If they have a chance for easy pickings, these herons will certainly take advantage of it, as I discovered when the koi and goldfish in my pond were disappearing. But in their natural habitat they will scan the water intently to find their prey.

great blue heron IMG_4336©Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8910© Maria de Bruyn rea

If you have the time and inclination to watch them for a lengthier period of time, you will note how they hunch down and stretch up as they position themselves to get good views of the water around them.

great blue heron IMG_4174©Maria de Bruyn (2) resgreat blue heron IMG_4242©Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron IMG_8791© Maria de Bruyn resThey stare downwards and to the side, following the movements of fish, frogs and crayfish. When the wind blows, their plumed neck and tail feathers sway gently and beautifully in the breeze.

great blue heron IMG_4343©Maria de Bruyn resIf nothing seems nearby, they will move with quiet and slow deliberation to another spot, often quite nearby. Unlike the snowy egrets, they don’t stir up the mud with their feet or flap their wings to create movement in the water.

When a fish does swim by, they burst into very fast motion, plunging their long beaks and whole heads down to grab what they have spotted.

 

 

great blue heron and egret IMG_8470© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8811© Maria de Bruyn res

They are not always successful, sometimes coming up empty beaked!

great blue heron IMG_8878© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8879© Maria de Bruyn resBut their patience obviously does pay off, too.

Great blue heron IMG_9578©Maria de BruynGreat blue heron IMG_9530©Maria de Bruyn

Once caught, they need to work the fish or other prey around so that they can swallow it down smoothly. As they swallow their meal whole, this is important. (And they can eat a very large meal; there is a film on the Internet showing a heron swallowing a groundhog!!)

great blue heron IMG_8813© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8816© Maria de Bruyngreat blue heron IMG_8477© Maria de Bruyn res

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If you look carefully, you can see the meal slide down their long necks.

great blue heron IMG_8826© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8484© Maria de Bruyn

Great blue heron IMG_0554©Maria de Bruyn resThis fishing strategy works well for the great blues as they can continue to hunt even when injured. This bird had a very badly damaged wing and apparently couldn’t fly anymore but it could stalk slowly in the lake as it looked for food.

The bird below had had some kind of encounter – either with a man-made obstacle or some form of wildlife that left it with an injured wing and broken leg. Bald eagles are one of the few predators of adult herons and this great blue lives at Jordan Lake which has a group of such eagles in residence. Despite the handicap, the heron could fly from spot to spot and then stand in wait for meals to swim by.

great blue heron IMG_9244© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_9247© Maria de Bruyn res

If disturbed, these birds emit a very loud and harsh squawk or croaking sound and then often take off. They certainly wouldn’t win any singing contests with their definitively non-melodious calls.

great blue heron IMG_8516© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8940© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron and egret IMG_5083© Maria de BruynThey prefer to fish in solitude and don’t care for other birds invading their territory. This great blue and great egret wanted the same spot and the great blue made some efforts to chase off its white competitor. However, the egret refused to leave and eventually they shared the spot with some meters of space between them.

Watching the herons fish has not only given me an appreciation for their innate patience but has also enhanced my own patience as well as I stand and wait with them until it’s finally mealtime.