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!

Winter wonderland – the bigger and colorful birds

In this second-to-last blog of the snowstorm series, I’d like to feature the bigger and colorful birds who demonstrated how they adapted their feeding habits to the prevailing weather. The Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) actually didn’t change their behavior that much – they looked on the ground for fallen seeds and spent plenty of time at the feeders.

They spent some time in the snow-laden trees looking lovely, too.

  

  

The Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) usually spend their time foraging underneath the feeders in search of fallen seed and they continued that behavior during the snowstorm. Unfortunately, the female was carrying a tick; I had already seen a robin and a junco with ticks on their faces – this may mean that the coming spring and summer will be an especially bad tick seasonal period for us.

 

The beautiful brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) looked both on the ground and at the feeders for his meals. Despite his size, s/he never bullied any other bird.

 

 

 

   

The remaining juniper berries on the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) attracted the blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata).

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was also seeking food there.

 

 

 

 

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and American robins (Turdus migratorius) had already been eating the juniper berries in the autumn; the waxwings had been by about a week earlier but now the robins were all over the trees, shaking off accumulated snow to get at the remaining fruit.

 

 

One robin looked as if s/he might have lost some outer feathers but it didn’t seem to affect her balance or flight. Occasionally, a robin also visited the meal worm feeder.

  

On the days following the big snowfall, as the snow melted more and more, the robins began eating it. During a previous snow event, they had joined the cedar waxwings on the roof of my house to get their drinks that way; now they were taking the snow from the trees.

They weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the opportunity. The Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), who did not visit the feeder, spent a lot of time in an oak tree near the feeders eating snow.

 

  

There were a few birds that visit my yard who didn’t show up during the snow. They included the American crows and the hawks who often make the birds scatter from the feeders: the Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. They must have been looking for food elsewhere.

Some birds may have also avoided the feeders because of the large number of competitors who showed up, a feature of the next and last blog in this series.

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!

Outwitting the starlings during Winter Storm Helena

white-tailed-deer-i77a4029-maria-de-bruyn-resSo this past weekend, our part of North Carolina dealt with Winter Storm Helena, which brought us 83 straight hours of below-freezing temperatures (e.g., -9C/15F but we had lower) and a need to bundle up really well if venturing outside. (It also brought me a realization that winter storms are being named like hurricanes.) The first morning, when I went out to fill the bird feeders, I didn’t put on gloves or a cap and dealt with hypothermia symptoms when I finally went inside. I had on triple layers after that! The deer had their fur puffed up and seemed to be coping well.

The frigid air made me feel very sorry for the wildlife, although living outdoors is, of course, what they do and what they have evolved to accommodate. (I did hear today, however, of some birds and small animals that were found frozen to death!) With the snow covering the ground, it turned out the birds were more than happy to visit the feeders and piles of food I had strewn on the snow for the ground feeders.

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Not only did I have many types of birds coming round, but also record numbers of them. Some birds, like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata, above), usually tend to visit on their own and are not happy with their species mates in the vicinity but during these days, I had four of them alighting near feeders at a time. The same was true for the colorful pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) although they didn’t come close to each other.

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pine-warbler-i77a2441-maria-de-bruyn-res

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) don’t seem to have too many problems with sharing space and visited the feeders in the same way they always do – quick flights to and fro from nearby tree and shrub branches.

carolina-wren-i77a3873-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-chickadee-i77a2710-maria-de-bruyn-res

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Most of the birds were fairly content to be in close proximity to one another during the snow days. The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) did get very cross with one another, however, when they came too close to one another and chased their rivals away.

Sometimes a bird would go off and rummage in the snow, like this blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

 

blue-jay-i77a2776-maria-de-bruyn-res blue-jay-i77a2770-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-i77a2674-maria-de-bruyn-resThe biggest challenge for me was keeping the suet and meal worms in supply, mainly because the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) show up in large groups and gulp down food at a speedy pace. The other birds nibble but the starlings seem to inhale food as if they have vacuum cleaners in their throats. They can get grumpy with one another and don’t mind landing atop each other to get a foothold on the feeder.

brown-thrasher-i77a3641-maria-de-bruyn-resI was pleased that the other species of birds are learning to cope with them, no longer being intimidated to fly away when these greedy avians arrive. However, they may get displaced from a feeder just because the bulky starlings take up so much room and never wait their turn to get a spot. The larger birds, like the thrashers and red-bellied woodpeckers, may express their displeasure to the starlings while trying to hold their ground. Other people report common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) as feeder dominant birds but they are well behaved at my house.

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So, what was I going to do? Some of my feeders are set in a flower garden and I had left the dried stalks of sage, butterfly bush and scarlet mallow standing. They don’t look pretty but the birds love sitting on them near the feeders as they digest a bite before getting another. So I began smearing suet on the stalks, which are not sturdy enough to hold the starlings.

The yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees were pleased, as was my faithful ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) and the Carolina chickadee.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a3913-maria-de-bruyn-res  carolina-chickadee-i77a4283-maria-de-bruyn-res

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To my surprise, even the larger Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) and brown thrashers discovered and sampled the suet-laden stalks.

northern-mockingbird-i77a3629-maria-de-bruyn-res   brown-thrasher-i77a3607-maria-de-bruyn-res

Following advice from the Bird Sleuth program, I had stuffed the bluebird and nuthatch boxes with pine needles and wool in case the birds wanted to shelter there overnight. I don’t know if any of them did, but the brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were again checking out their preferred nest box, so perhaps they did roost there overnight.

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I was filling the heated bird bath daily, too, as it became a popular drinking fountain.

The thrill of the wintery snow days for me was a new yard visitor, a gorgeous fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). I have never had one here before so it was a wonderful surprise and discovery. (I’m still hoping that a red-breasted nuthatch will turn up, too.)

 

 

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The birds “missing” from the storm gathering were the hawks. I’ve had a Cooper’s hawk  (Accipiter cooperii) visiting for years, but recently discovered that a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) is also taking birds from my yard. As they look quite similar, the sharpie may have been coming around for some time and I just never realized it. They were both here in the last couple weeks, but neither one made an appearance during the storm.

coopers-hawk-i77a1341-maria-de-bruyn-res   sharp-shinned-hawk-i77a8520-maria-de-bruyn-res

Our two neighborhood white-tailed does (Odocoileus virginianus) and their three offspring came by, obviously finding my yard a peaceful and safe space to rest.

white-tailed-deer-i77a4432-maria-de-bruyn-res   white-tailed-deer-i77a4431-maria-de-bruyn-res

So I’ll end with some “beauty shots” from the snow days as the snow and ice are now melting. In two days’ time, we are supposed to be having temperatures of 68F/20C or higher! And then we can wait out the rest of January as well as February and March to see if we get any more winter storms.

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White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

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     house-finch-i77a2852-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)        House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

dark-eyed-junco-i77a2590-maria-de-bruyn-res  downy-woodpecker-i77a2810-maria-de-bruyn-res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)          Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

eastern-towhee-i77a4111-maria-de-bruyn-res    northern-cardinal-i77a3099-maria-de-bruyn-res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)      Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

blue-jay-i77a2858-maria-de-bruyn-res     eastern-bluebird-i77a2285-maria-de-bruyn-res

Blue jay                                                       Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4047-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4263-maria-de-bruyn-res

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)     Ruby-crowned kinglet

northern-mockingbird-i77a2714-maria-de-bruyn-res   pine-warbler-i77a2657-maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird                                              Pine warbler

 

Soothing my spirit, seeking solace for the soul

leaf-i77a2875-maria-de-bruyn-resAlthough more people in the USA voted for the Democratic ticket than the Republican one, the electoral college system will likely lead to the installation of a Republican presidency unless election re-counts affect those designated votes. This distresses me greatly given the persons who have been announced as top administration advisers and cabinet members. My work on social issues and on behalf of vulnerable people will continue and is increasing. But in the meantime, to keep from going into a 100% depressed mode, I have sought solace in nature walks and spiritual strengthening in the flora and fauna I see.

painted-turtle-i77a2277-maria-de-bruyn-resToday, I will share some of words of wisdom from a conscientious spiritual leader with you, along with some photos of nature’s beauties seen during my walks at the Cane Creek Reservoir, Sandy Creek Park and Mason Farm Biological Reserve just before and since the November election. It’s a bit of a long blog but offers some visual sustenance to ponder, like the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta, above) at Mason Farm and the yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) at Sandy Creek sunning in the morning sun despite chilly temperatures. (From a distance, the slider looked a bit as if there was something with open jaws in the pond!)

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Early in the morning, you can find frost- and dew-covered plants and a few remaining flowers glistening in the sun.

 

 

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Blanket flower (Gaillardia)                           Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

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Later in the morning, the autumn-colored leaves make nice patterns as you search for birds high and low. And occasionally you get to see the fabled “leaf bird”.

 

 

 

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When looking high, you may find the birds looking down on you; face-level stares as you gaze straight ahead may also occur!

white-throated-sparrow-i77a6365-maria-de-bruyn-res                     eastern-towhee-i77a1659maria-de-bruyn-res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

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At Cane Creek, the killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) make their presence known by their distinctive calls and you can enjoy their gorgeous appearance as they fly over the lake.

 

 

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Taking care of our planet is like taking care of our houses. Since we human beings come from Nature, there is no point in our going against Nature, which is why I say the environment is not a matter of religion or ethics or morality. These are luxuries, since we can survive without them. But we will not survive if we continue to go against Nature.  – Dalai Lama

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Many birds, like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), are busy finding seeds and nuts for their meals.

 

 

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Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)          White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

song-sparrow-i77a1499maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-chickadee-i77a8444-maria-de-bruyn-res

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)                 Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Sometimes, it involves hanging upside down to snag a tasty morsel and their wings help in balancing.

carolina-chickadee-i77a2699maria-de-bruyn    ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a2565-maria-de-bruyn-res

Carolina chickadee                                    Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

If we unbalance Nature, humankind will suffer. Furthermore, as people alive today, we must consider future generations: a clean environment is a human right like any other. It is therefore part of our responsibility towards others to ensure that the world we pass on is as healthy, if not healthier, than when we found it. – Dalai Lama

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At Sandy Creek, a group of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) flew down to investigate what had dropped to the ground from an overflowing garbage can but they soon flew off to seek more normal food elsewhere.

 

 

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A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) was stalking the pond for fish; after I saw him (or her) snag a medium-sized fish, he turned his back so I saw the fishing technique from the rear.

great-blue-heron-i77a1438maria-de-bruyn-2-res  great-blue-heron-i77a1440maria-de-bruyn-res

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The flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) at Cane Creek still had a few blossoms; at Sandy Creek and Mason Farm, they offered bright berries. On one tree, they made me think of a movie-inspired alien peeking out of the branches with eyes on stalks.

 

flowering-dogwood-i77a5820-maria-de-bruyn-res       flowering-dogwood-i77a1012maria-de-bruyn-res

Destruction of nature and nature resources results from ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things. – Dalai Lama

Up until the first morning frost this autumn, butterflies were still around, like this sleepy orange (Eurema nicippe); now that we have had several mornings of below-freezing temperatures, the butterflies are mostly gone as are the majority of bees. A scorpion fly (Panorpa) was in evidence at Cane Creek to my surprise.

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In between bird spottings, Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) chittered at me at all three parks. And I was pleased to see some ruby-crowned kinglets since the one that has enjoyed the suet at my house the past three years hasn’t appeared yet.

 

 

 

ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a6241-maria-de-bruyn-res     ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a2574-maria-de-bruyn-res

…until now, Mother Earth has been able to tolerate our sloppy house habits. However, the stage has now been reached where she can no longer accept our behaviour in silence. The problems caused by environmental disasters can be seen as her response to our irresponsible behaviour. She is warning us that there are limits even to her tolerance. –  Dalai Lama

Some of the birds common in my yard are welcome sights at the nature reserves, too.

northern-mockingbird-i77a2312-maria-de-bruyn-res    dark-eyed-junco-i77a0624maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)         Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

carolina-wren-i77a6358-maria-de-bruyn-res   yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a2780maria-de-bruyn-res

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)   Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

northern-flicker-i77a2485-maria-de-bruyn-res          eastern-bluebird-i77a0688maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)               Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

chipping-sparrow-i77a2915-maria-de-bruyn-res    chipping-sparrow-i77a2925-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)

Many of the earth’s habitats, animals, plants, insects, and even microorganisms that we know of as rare or endangered, may not be known at all by future generations. We have the capacity, and the responsibility. We must act before it is too late.    Dalai Lama

And the occasional or rare visitors to my yard are appreciated in the woods and fields, too!

field-sparrow-i77a1587maria-de-bruyn-res      field-sparrow-i77a1634maria-de-bruyn-res

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

rusty-blackbird-i77a3199-maria-de-bruyn-res rusty-blackbird-i77a3110maria-de-bruyn-res

Rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

swamp-sparrow-i77a6063-maria-de-bruyn-res      golden-crowned-kinglet-maria-de-bruyn-i77a1711maria-de-bruyn-res

Swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)             Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

I feel that it is extremely important that each individual realize their responsibility for preserving the environment, to make it a part of daily life, create the same attitude in their families, and spread it to the community. – Dalai Lama

hermit-thrush-i77a6034-maria-de-bruyn-res  cedar-waxwing-i77a5945-maria-de-bruyn-res

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

white-throated-sparrow-i77a1564maria-de-bruyn-res

 

What a great quote and slogan material:

 

Preserve the environment, make it part of your daily life and spread it to the community!