Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

Unexpected loving care – a winter gift

One of the delights of my back yard is being able to look outside just about any time to see some sort of wildlife. Often, it is birds that I see but there are insects, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, too. Wooded areas in and near our neighborhood are being clear-cut, pushing the animals out of their long-time homes and they don’t have many places to go. So our yards become a refuge, at least when the residents don’t chase them away. I am fine with non-human species in my yard, so they sometimes rest here, get a drink from the pond and hunt for food. Among the most graceful visitors are the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), who have been among my favorite mammals ever since I got to know one in particular, Schatje.

The past couple years, the resident does who most often traversed our streets had fawns, but they were mostly producing male offspring – five bucks to two does by my guesstimate. Since the availability of food is diminishing, as is the available natural territory, it may be that this will keep the local population somewhat limited as there will be fewer does to give birth.

In spring and summer, bucks do not visit my yard as often as does and their fawns but during breeding season, they put in more frequent appearances. One of the two daily visiting does (“Mama”, recognizable by a mark near her eye) fled this year whenever they arrived. At one point, her twins (born this past spring) began coming around with an older brother who was born last year (“Sweetie”; at left). Mama eventually stopped coming at all and I suspect she was perhaps hit by a car.

Sweetie has sometimes been challenged by one of his younger brothers and then he does a little practice “jousting” with him. He never pushes hard, just enough to give the younger button buck something to resist.

At the start of November, I was quite surprised to see a very small fawn that still had some spotting turn up in the yard. The other deer tried to drive it away but it hung around waiting for them to leave and then would lick up whatever remaining bird seed was still on the ground. The little one was never accompanied by a doe and I had to assume that the mother had died and the young one is an orphan. I had read that late-born fawns often do not survive as they haven’t had time to build up body mass and reserves to get through a winter but this little deer seems to be very resilient and persistent.

The persistence seems to have paid off and resulted in a winter gift. Sweetie and one of his younger brothers seem to have “adopted” the fawn! They not only allow the young deer to be around them when they look for bird seed on the ground; they are also grooming the orphan! This seems to me to be unusual behavior for bucks, but I’m happy they are doing it.

This development has just warmed my heart.

In the meantime, the remaining older doe has only come by occasionally, together with what I assume is her daughter from last year. They do not stick around when the larger bucks put in an appearance. The other day, the largest buck entered the yard holding up his left front leg. The injury does not prevent him from walking. When a younger adult buck came by, it turned out that the injury also does not prevent him from engaging in some jousting as well.

The “duel” between the two adult males that I witnessed did not seem very serious, perhaps because no does were in sight or perhaps because the healthy buck was still being careful not to challenge the larger deer even though he had an injury.

They did not really push one another much but spent more time entwining their antlers – which seemed pretty dicey to me as the points came close to their eyes! That didn’t stop their activity, however.

Eventually, the two parted, quite amiably it seemed, and each went his own way. It was a fascinating “performance” and kept me quite entertained. And I remain grateful that these beautiful mammals come by regularly, sometimes resting against the back fence and sometimes displaying behaviors that keep me learning something about their lives.

 

Not a white Xmas but some snowy portraits – part 1

Some of my friends really enjoy having a white Christmas holiday. When I was a child, I enjoyed it as well. Our town would usually have very snowy winters and I remember many times playing in snow piled a couple feet high. From my parents’ second-floor apartment, I liked looking out the window at the icicles, which could grow to 3 or more feet in length. It was disappointing when my mother broke them off, but she didn’t want one to fall and stab a passerby. Now, I think it is nice to see everything covered in freshly fallen snow; melting icicles and frosty dew can be pretty, but one day of this weather is enough for me. (As an adult, I now tend to think of low-income and homeless people who suffer from the cold and the dangers of icy roads.)

Still, seeing the wildlife in the yard and birds at my feeders during our very early Southern winter snowstorm in the first half of December was enjoyable. So in lieu of a white Xmas season, here is a two-part series of snowy portraits. (Remember that you can see a photo larger if you click on it; then just go back to the blog if you want to read more.) First up are the “larger” birds and a couple of the mammals who visited.

It did not take long for the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) to begin foraging in the snow; they were already busy on the first gray, darkish morning of our 2-day snowstorm.

 Lately, a family of 5 American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has been visiting my yard often, the parents and three offspring who decided to stick around for a while. Although feeding bread to birds is not recommended, I admittedly do give the crows some whole-wheat pieces now and again as they seem to love them so much. So they come looking for that and occasional pieces of apple that I put out for them.

 

The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) often feed on the ground but occasionally visit the feeders as well. They sometimes come as a pair but more often arrive as solitary visitors.

 

 

 

The European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are very beautiful birds with their winter plumage speckles. They do tend to be ill-tempered birds, however, creating havoc when they alight on feeders, chasing away other species as well as their own family members. Even the evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus), who visited my yard for the first time ever, gave way to the grouchy starlings.

 

The starlings look nice and peaceful when they sit still on a branch or rest on the snow-covered ground. When they fly up to the feeders, however, I sometimes chase them off. They used to only eat a bit of seed but now have also developed a taste for dried meal-worms and even suet. When a gang of 8-12 come, they can empty feeders in about 20 minutes. ANNOYING! (Both for me and the other birds!)

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often announce their arrival with loud squawking but tend to settle down fairly quickly. Their blue colors look beautiful against white snow.

  

The mourning doves are rather placid, slow and amiable birds, not minding if they have to share feeding space with other species, like the Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). They do sometimes crowd out smaller birds when they alight on a feeder simply because their large bodies leave little extra space.

One dove was happy to sit a while in the snow; another took advantage of my bird bath de-icer to have a drink. I enjoy watching and hearing them, with their harmonious cooing – even their scientific name has a beautiful, melodic sound to it: Zenaida macroura!

 

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) came to see how much seed had fallen to the ground as their acorns and beech nuts were covered in white stuff.

 

 

The snow was so heavy that it cracked off the tops of some trees into my yard. It also crushed down the Japanese rose (Kerria japonica), which I will have to prune in warmer weather. The fallen branches of both trees and rose did provide the deer with some cold-weather snacks.

And my favorite snow portraits of the “big feeder birds” – the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)! The grackles at my feeders don’t really bother other birds, so I don’t dislike them as some other people do.

Those iridescent colors are just gorgeous and some of the bird’s expressions mirror my feelings in facing some recent challenges. But we both move on looking forward to brighter times! 😊

  

I hope the weather where you live causes you no problems the rest of 2018!

 

Winter wonderland – sparrows and warblers

Yesterday, as I walked through my yard, I was surprised to see groups of daffodils sticking up their heads; it seemed rather early to me but last year we had early signs of spring as well. It is a big contrast to our weather conditions less than a month ago, though. On the 17th of January, our town was surprised by 11-12 inches of beautiful, powdery snow.

  

  

 

While our southern area often has a couple instances of (light) snow and/or an ice storm in the winter, our climate is generally fairly mild and temperatures in the 50s and 60s Farenheit are not uncommon during winter. So the brief but heavy snowfall was quite an event; our streets were empty of traffic as everyone stayed home and watched the falling flakes.

Some people built snowmen, others went sledding and walking, and some of us spent hours filling our bird feeders and watching the birds. I also made an attempt to photograph some frozen bubbles, which was very challenging since it was windy during the entire winter weather event.

  

The snow began slowly melting a bit the next day, which made some of the icicles on the house elongate to a length of almost 3-4 feet, but it wasn’t until Friday and Saturday that the snow and ice really started disappearing.

My yard looked beautiful, but I spent time on the 17th repeatedly knocking snow off the bird feeders and heated birth bath so that the birds could reach the food and water.

  

   

Although I saw a couple squirrels and the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) also came by, I didn’t see other mammals like chipmunks, raccoons, opossums. But I had 25 different bird species come by on Wednesday and Thursday; on Friday and Saturday, two more species came by. I’d like to share some snow day photos of them all in this and the next few blogs.

First up are the sparrows and warblers. The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) usually get their seed from the hanging feeders in the front and back yards but now they were looking everywhere for a bite to eat. I had strewn some seed on the ground and they began looking there.

One found a trove of food and another came by asking to be fed, a request the first sparrow accommodated quite sweetly.

 

 

The white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have an opposite feeding strategy, usually feeding on the ground and occasionally venturing up to a feeder. They, too, searched under the snow for some food.

 

The pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) tend to be rather shy; only very rarely does a pair visit together. Mostly, one shows up at a time; their beautiful yellow color was really highlighted against the white background.

 

The pine warblers did have to brave a bad-tempered bird to get to the feeders. One of the six resident yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) has become very territorial, chasing away some other yellow-rumped warblers, the ruby-crowned kinglets and the pine warbler – in other words, the birds his size or smaller. He allows a couple other yellow-rumps to feed peacefully and I think perhaps they are his family members so that he tolerates them. He didn’t stop the other small birds from coming around, however, as we’ll see in the next blog.

 

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-chipmunk-i77a8790-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-chipmunk-i77a3418-maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-cottontail-i77a9747-maria-de-bruyn-resThe Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) don’t often go for the bird food but prefer to munch on the grasses and other plants growing on the “lawn”.

I was surprised this summer when I discovered that the beautiful neighborhood gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) was fond of bread.

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Her presence in the yard reinforced my resolve to no longer let my former indoor-outdoor cat, Jonahay, out by himself anymore. He has almost reached the ripe old age of 18 years and is going strong despite suffering arthritis, mild kidney disease, mild dementia and deafness. But all the years of having roamed outside have preserved a strong will to go outdoors so I take him for walks around the yard, which give him opportunities to mark his territory anew. (My other two cats are strictly indoor felines, although one of them likes to escape now and again.)

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Two years running now, my yard has served as a venue for a citizen-science bird banding exercise and it’s always a pleasure to see banded birds returning to the feeders, like Corey catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) who enjoys American beautyberries. They also include my intrepid Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), Chantal, who unfortunately lost a leg (I think because she had scaly leg when she was banded and the bands were too tight but I don’t know this for sure). She is a feisty little bird and manages to balance remarkably well on her remaining leg; her daily return is always a joyous sight for me.

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2016 was an exciting year as far as caterpillars went since a large sphinx moth caterpillar (Paonias) graced the yard for the first time (at least that I had noticed).  Cute little jumping spiders (Salticidae) climb onto bird nest boxes and Eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) are found in the leaf litter.

 

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Unfortunately, some of the stink bugs (Halyomorpha) make their way into the house so that I have to take them back outside. One of my cats made the mistake of eating one that I hadn’t got in time and she ended up quite sick, even foaming at the mouth!

mouse-img_2726-maria-de-bruyn-resOccasionally, mice (Mus) get into the house. The cats don’t eat them and aren’t out to kill them but if they catch one at night and I don’t awaken, the rodent will be dead in the morning. Otherwise, I manage to get hold of the animal (sometimes with a lot of effort) and let it go outside again.

The snowberry (Hemaris diffinis) & hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris thysbe) are delightful.

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And so were various birds that visited my yard for the first time this year (or at least as far as I had noticed)! They included the black and white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler and Northern parula. Here are three more, plus the beautiful great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus, left), which I’d seen before but not well.

 

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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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