For the birds…

It has been an extreme few weeks in New England that has brought us over 40″ of snow in our area of New Hampshire. Today the snow is coming down steady again… enough that the snowplows have cleared our drive 4 times! We always feed the birds but during severe weather we step up our support as natural food supplies are difficult to find. We have trenches and we shovel out to refill feeders twice a day. The snow is as light as ivory flakes so the shoveling isn’t strenuous. And, amazingly, it’s full of tunnels where the squirrels are searching for wayward birdseed. They pop up here and there like Whac-A-Mole game.

trenchThe familiar backyard avian crew frequents our feeders… just in greater numbers in this weather. The black-capped chickadees, the white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and tons of American goldfinch, pine siskins, and purple finches dine on the tube feeder and the covered bluebird feeder. The noisy finches that number in the twenties also monopolize the nyjer seed feeder.

finches on nyjer sock

American Goldfinches

Northern cardinals, mourning doves, a handful of blue jays, white-throated sparrows and a few other sparrows, a large number of dark-eyed juncos, a common redpoll or two, American finches and pine siskins hop around atop the snow for the seeds we scatter.

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Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

junco..

Dark-eyed Junco

Red-bellied woodpeckers, Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, the chickadees and titmice go through the suet in no time.

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chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

 

Female P. Finch

Female Purple Finches

 

Pine Siskin

 

The avian activity provides a lot of excitement and entertainment at our house. Breakfast, lunch, and dinnertime at our table are hives of activity at the window feeder. We enjoy watching the shy, the gregarious, the bullies, the bold, the eat-and-run birds, the noisy, and the birds that like to watch us watching them.

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At least it’s a leisurely hobby that you can enjoy from the comfort and warmth of your home… unlike some of our neighbors who must wait for the snowplow to clear enough snow so their animal friends can have a little recreation. Brrrr….
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Cindy and pup

Angry Birds?

It was frigid yesterday and we always take extra care of the birds in severe weather. Fresh suet, heated bird bath, filled feeders, and sunflower seed scattered to attract the ground feeding birds. Who came to dinner? Our neighborhood rafter of turkeys!

I don’t dare intrude when our 18-20 hungry turkeys arrive. The gobblers can be a trifle aggressive and I sure don’t want to ruffle their feathers so I videoed a few of them from the window. The dominant Toms had slim pickings as they kept watch on the fringes allowing the rest access to the sunflower seeds that I scattered for much smaller birds on this icy morning.

I’m becoming rather attached…

Nuts for this Squirrel

We are a stone’s throw from beautiful coniferous woods with plenty of oak trees. But during the most brutal of snowstorms, ice storms, and frigid temperatures this winter, a small American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) risked life and limb dashing out of the woods, crossing a road, running atop snow several feet deep to eat fallen seed beneath our bird feeder. Looking like a tiny snowball as the snow fell and covered it, we watched month after month as the little fella dined with the hungry birds… until late winter when it stopped appearing. I soon knew why. In early spring, it returned and I could see evidence SHE had become a nursing mother.

It wasn’t too much longer that she introduced her three tiny offspring to sunflower seed. These miniature creatures, unsteady as they navigated trees and limbs, tugged at our heartstrings. The wary Mama and two babies have since moved on. But one brave youngster seems to prefer scraps beneath the feeder more than foraging for coniferous seeds this summer.

SpunkyThis one loves to perch on the stump of an old lilac and eat the seeds one at a time. There are those who say these are the most destructive squirrels but we have not seen evidence of anything like that….yet.  He co-exists with birds, respectfully waiting his turn to feed after the birds. Red squirrels are known for their loud bark and foot stomping in the presence of danger or intrusion. He does none of that. I can drag the hose around the yard and water the garden while he feeds quietly just a few feet from me.

We’re not trying to tame him or have him eat from our hands but we are charmed by his antics. Every now and then, he amuses us by diving for seed that has fallen into the stumps of the old lilac. All we see is a wagging tail as he forages.

Red squirrels usually only have one litter a year in this area so we’re pretty sure we won’t be swamped by these natives. Should he decide he’s had enough of us and head back to the woods, our mixed coniferous-deciduous forest should sustain him well.

Strut Your Stuff

From our second floor bedroom at 6 a.m. each morning, we carefully pull back the drapes to witness a crowd hanging out beneath our window. A flock of about 15 eastern wild turkeys (Meleagris gallapavo sylvestris) appear at dawn from the nearby woods and gather beneath crab apple and oak trees where retreating snow has uncovered fruit and nuts. The hens get right down to breakfast but the males aren’t at all interested in food. They’re trying to look their best to make themselves more attractive to the females. Yes, we’re right in the middle of mating season.

Tom TurkeyFrom late March through April, the mating season for turkeys takes place. Tail feathers fanned, iridescent feathers puffed out around the body, head flushed with color, the toms slowly strut in a courtship display dragging their wing tips along the ground around the seemingly disinterested, hungry females.

Toms and hensSo far these wild male turkeys seem to tolerate one another very well but aggression could mount between the toms in competition for hens. The males have spurs, bony spikes up to 2″ in length, that they use for defense and to establish dominance. We’ve seen none of that so far.

Adult male turkey

The tail feathers of an adult male turkey are all the same length. The two juvenile ‘jakes’ below display a fan with longer feathers in the center. Both practiced their struts and puffing but probably won’t attract a mate this season.

young male with dominate maleWe watch the turkey show for about 15 minutes or so, then at some invisible sign the entire flock turns and silently disappears back to the cover of the trees.

We all know the turkey population has rebounded from near extinction from over hunting and loss of habitat. In the mid-1800’s, New Hampshire had no turkeys at all. A small number was reintroduced to the state in 1975 and the birds have thrived. Current numbers of wild turkeys in New Hampshire are estimated at 40,000 and total estimate puts the turkey at 7 million birds nationwide. We’re just happy to have our little flock that we’ve watched mature from last summer return regularly to entertain us at our house.

Good Morning Sunshine…

Look who greeted us on our deck this morning!  Who do you think this is?

This lime green visitor is a luna moth (Actias luna), probably one of the most spectacular moths of North America. At almost a 4 1/2″ wing span, it’s hard to miss. We left the deck light on last night and these moths are attracted to light. I consider that light pollution and we won’t do that again.

On the fore wing and hind wings, it has eyspots to fool predators but I find a lot of wings on my walks so not everyone is fooled. The adult moth lives for about a week after emerging from the cocoon when mating and laying of about 200 eggs occurs. The moths have no mouth parts at this stage and eat nothing for this week.

The antennae are clues to the sex of the moth. Our visitor is a female. The male has fuller, feathery antennae to better sense the female pheromones at night.

Hooked on Tree Swallows

He’s handsome. He’s friendly. He’s brave. He’s funny. He’s an entertainer. He’s an acrobat. And he helps protect me from biting insects. It’s the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor or TRES), a swallow that breeds over most of North America… except the Southeast. Tidewater Virginia is in the ‘maybe’ zone and I’d never experienced this species of swallow.

Although their summer diet is insects, the male tree swallow, with his beautiful iridescent green-blue back, would land atop the bird feeder pole, looking left and right up and down at the seed-eating birds, never bothering them but looked simply curious.

From the break of day to the last rays of light at night, the pair of tree swallows that took up residence in one of our new bluebird houses commanded the skies in search of insects. Their aerial acrobatics and sweet warbles to each other made me think of the lyrics from Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love”:

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above….
It looks like muskrat love

Dipping and dancing, twirling and soaring, these agile little fellas coursed over fields and water at speeds of 25 MPH consuming insects… up to 2,000 insects each and feeding 6,000 to their offspring in the 45-day nesting period according to Dick Tuttle of the Ohio Bluebird Society.

Our tree swallows have raised their one batch of young that have recently fledged. I can see the entire family flying back and forth across the small pond across the field catching insects in the air. Since they were finished with their house, I opened it yesterday and this is what I found.

Their nests are made with coarse grasses and lined with feathers that look much like water fowl feathers. The feathers, gathered by the male, are said to keep the young warm and deter mites.

In reading more about tree swallows, I should have opened the bird box regularly to check on the chicks and evict any house sparrows that may have taken up residence. The house sparrow is a European invasive and a threat to the welfare of the swallows. To learn more about the tree swallow, click here.

Douglas Tallamy visits Richmond

“Plants and animals are the rivets that hold our ecosystem together,” says Douglas Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tallamy speak to Garden Club of Virginia horticulture chairmen and state board members in Richmond today and his message was a challenge to gardeners and homeowners in the room to evaluate our own yards and plant more native plants to sustain wildlife and promote biodiversity.

Americans seem to love lawns, yet if they would simply replace the grass in 50% of their lawns with native plants, he added, we would create a 20 million-acre park that would go far in attracting birds and other wildlife back into our gardens.

As gardeners we often choose lovely plants that are both non-native and pest free, however insects are what we want and non-natives do nothing for them. Bring back the insects with native plants and trees and we will attract the birds, the frogs and toads, the skinks, etc. to this insect food source. Bird populations are on the decline, a fact linked directly to habitat.

It’s not the berries that the birds need, it’s the insects with high protein and fats. Over 90% of birds exist on a diet of insects while winter and migratory birds eat seeds.

Tallamy stressed that we all have an important role in making a difference to sustain wildlife and biodiversity. Share your space. Plant natives, folks!

For more information on this topic or to order his book, Bringing Nature Home, visit Dr. Tallamy’s website where he offers much guidance and advice. Lists of woody and herbaceous plants that support life and the number of insects it supports are included on the site. A surprise to me was the oak tree, # 1 on the list, that supports 534 different caterpillars!  Plant oak trees, folks!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Wild and Wonderful Dragon

Wild and wonderful could describe both the Dragon Run and the enthusiastic woman who led several folks on a Saturday morning outing through trails owned by the Friends of Dragon Run, the non-profit group that supports the woodlands, swamp and stream.

Vivacious and enthusiastic, Teta Kain is energized by the pristine watershed that feeds the 40 miles of the Dragon Run stream, emptying into the Piankatank River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. She’s a naturalist, a wildlife photographer, a bird enthusiast, a butterfly expert, a writer, and a self-professed lover of ‘critters’ that inhabit our world.  I have been fortunate enough to hear several of her talks, kayak the Dragon with her and now I have experienced the passion she has for the flora along the trails in this unspoiled wilderness, a rare ecosystem that the Smithsonian Institution ranked second in ecological significance in a study of 232 significant areas of 12,600 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay region.

Teta with her friend, Kohl, show us how to ID a mushroom using a mirror.

The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and Friends of Dragon Run have partnered to protect the watershed but the Friends of Dragon Run provides the only access to the area for kayaking and hiking. It also provides guided tours on both to view and study the flora and fauna. Although there are posts along the trails that identify American hornbeam, mockernut hickory, bald cypress, devils walkingstick, possumhaw, fetterbush, partridgeberry, spotted wintergreen, and flowers with names like Elephant’s foot, we would not have learned all we did without Teta who would easily drop to the ground with a mirror to teach us to identify mushrooms by reflecting the differences in the gills to us, who pointed out the small differences in species of ferns, who could identify spiders and butterflies, fungus and Lycopodiums and even our feathered friends that inhabit the wilderness.

It is refreshing to know such a dedicated volunteer like Teta who is committed to teaching and protecting the unique ecosystem of Dragon Run, hoping to light a fire under others.  The future of the Dragon as a wild and wonderful watershed is not guaranteed. Development always threatens.  Let’s hope the Dragon can remain pristine and vital.  Pssst…. You could help! The Friends of Dragon Run does accept tax deductible donations to further conservation, education and protection of the watershed. Want to know more? Check it out: www.dragonrun.org.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester