Dec 17, 2010

eBird Occurrence Maps

It's one thing to look at data in a table about where birds live and their migration patterns, but it's a whole lot more fun to see animated representations of these data - and easier to picture the range of birds in our minds. eBird, a bird project supported by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, has animated maps showing occurrences of selected species throughout the year and other great information about bird monitoring in the United States.

Here's how the maps are described on the eBird website:

"These maps, which are called STEM (Spatio-Temporal Exploratory Model) maps, use eBird stationary and traveling count checklists that report all species. The location of each checklist is associated with remotely-sensed information on habitat, climate, human population, and demographics generating a suite of approximately 60 variables describing the environment where eBird searches take place. By relating these environmental variables to observed occurrences, STEM is used to make predictions at unsampled locations and times.  Models are trained one species at a time. Following model training, the expected occurrence for that species is predicted on each of 52 days, one per week throughout 2009, at some 130,000 locations sampled throughout the conterminous US. This massive volume of information is then summarized on maps, which in many cases reveal novel information about the annual cycles of North American birds. These maps showcase the power of eBird – year-round, continental-scale monitoring of all species.
"Each species map is displayed with a text overview of the broad-scale migration patterns, along with an interesting biological story to consider. "
Visit the website,, to see these maps, results of Christmas and other national bird counts, and more interesting information on wild birds.
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Dec 16, 2010

A Rafter of Turkeys

[From my"Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, December 2010]

Two wild turkey toms walking 
through woodland in autumn.
Photo courtesy of Steve Maslowski/

US Fish & Wildlife Service
A rafter of wild turkeys regularly forages through the woods around my house. Nope, I don’t mean I have a large wooden beam in the woods with turkeys perched on it. “Rafter” is one of those words for a group of animals that has drifted out of modern usage, like an “Exaltation of Larks,” which is also the title of a marvelous book on the subject by James Lipton. According to Lipton, these terms were mainly used by the upper classes to separate themselves from the riffraff—another word that came out of the common root, “raft,” meaning “a large and often motley collection of people and things.”

Between the etymology of “rafter” and our propensity to refer to the clueless among us as “turkeys,” it’s easy to have a low opinion of this bird–unless you’re a hunter. As turkey researcher R. W. Bailey once observed, “Under normal conditions, the ability of hunters to harvest turkeys is equaled, or exceeded, by the eternal elusiveness of the latter.”

Ben Franklin, who wanted to make the turkey our national mascot instead of the bald eagle, also spoke to the character of the bird: "For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . a bird of courage….”

Meleagris gallopavo is the wild turkey species native to North America, while the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) hails from Mexico. Turkeys got their name because the first Europeans to land in the New World thought the birds were related to guineafowl, which had been imported into Europe from Turkey and so were also known as “Turkey fowl.” Our native turkeys are actually in another bird family that also includes pheasants. Both families belong to the order Galliformes, which includes other large ground-dwelling birds, such as chickens and grouse.

The start of turkey domestication is in some dispute but apparently dates back about 2000 years to the Mayans or Aztecs. The Muscovy duck is the only other domesticated bird species originating in the New World. European explorers took wild turkeys to Europe from Mexico in the early 1500s, then the domestic version was brought back with English colonists when they settled on the Atlantic Coast.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), wild turkeys mate in the spring, laying their eggs in dead leaves or vegetation in a depression on the ground, with the young generally emerging from their shells in early June. Hens raise the chicks on their own, although the young soon learn to forage for themselves.

A rafter of turkeys walking through a forest always reminds me of a royal procession, with the participants moving slowly and gracefully, casting their gaze from side to side. Hens and their broods may join together into bands of more than 30 birds, with some winter groups exceeding 200.

Turkeys have black, brown and white feathers and fan-shaped tails, which males proudly display when courting. The brown tips of the tail feathers distinguish the wild turkey from the domestic variety, whose tail feathers are tipped in white.

Male turkeys, and some females, have beards. Those of the males, referred to as “Toms” or “gobblers,” can grow up to a foot long. With heads normally a subdued gray, in spring the toms change to their courtship colors—white foreheads, deep scarlet necks, and bright blue faces. In Virginia, grown males average 17–19 pounds in the spring, according VDGIF.

While the turkey’s gobble is a familiar and often imitated sound, these birds can also be remarkably quiet. While walking in a forest I’ve been startled several times to turn my head and find a turkey sitting quietly at eye level in a tree just a few feet from me. Once they know they’ve been spotted, any grace they have on the ground is belied by their noisy and awkward flight to the nearest treetop.

Turkeys make a variety of habitats their home, with a combination of forest and open land being preferred. An omnivore that will eat nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds, and salamanders, according to VDGIF, they are especially fond of acorns. They pick these on the basis of their size and shape, since turkeys do not have an acute sense of smell. As with deer, in a good acorn year like this one, turkeys are more likely to stick to the forest where the seeds are abundant and hunters are hindered. Other predators—especially of the eggs and young—include snakes, skunks, crows, ravens, opossums, raccoons, rodents, dogs and coyotes.

Conversion of forest to other uses and overhunting (mostly for the market) led to the disappearance of wild turkey in two-thirds of Virginia and its becoming rare in other sections, with populations hitting their nadir by around 1880 to 1910. Reforestation and other conservation efforts have brought populations up to an estimated 180,000 statewide, according to VDGIF. In the 1940s wild turkey were caught and reestablished throughout all the states except Alaska.

The precise historical origins of the observance of Thanksgiving on this continent are disputed by historians, we do know that the wily wild turkey played an important part in the lives of this country’s founders and of the native peoples who preceded them. Keep that in mind the next time you call some idiot a “turkey.”
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Birds in the Snow

This is just a quick post, since I have deadlines out the wazoo. I just wanted to share what I'm seeing from my kitchen, where I often work in the morning so I can see the activity at my bird feeders on the deck. Right now,  in our first "real" snow (although it probably won't amount to much), they're being mobbed by Goldfinches, the bird mafia. I know they're cute, and gorgeous when they change to their yellow breeding colors in the summer, but they show up in such numbers - at least a dozen right now - that other birds have a hard time finding a spot to feed.

I not only put up two feeders with a high-protein mix of seeds and nuts but also a Nyjer feeder and a suet feeder. These are all hung from the roof over the deck, so they're sheltered. To give the ground-feeding birds, and all the other nonfinch guys, a shot I also spread out seed along the deck railing and floor.

Right now, other than the finches, there are Northern Cardinals, White-Breasted Nuthatches, a white-throated sparrow, Titmice, and Carolina Chickadees. A few feet from the deck is an ancient tree that is a favorite of woodpeckers and bluebirds this time of year, since it's undoubtedly loaded with insects. The king of Virginia woodpeckers, the Pileated, worked that tree for quite a while before moving on to others. Out front, in a hanging tray feeder, more cardinals, sparrows, and a Blue Jay.

I don't try to feed the overwintering hummingbirds, the Rufous and Allen's. It's just too much work, but I know others all over Virginia are benefiting from going that extra step. (See my column on this, also posted here.)

I was happy to hear that our local farmers' co-op had switched to high-quality, certified bird feed, so I feel better about what I'm feeding the mob, even though they're likely to run me into the poor house.

I recently wrote my "Wild Ideas" newspaper column on feeding birds. Look for that to be posted here soon. More on the bird mobs later. Now it's off to get groceries for my dog and me, if there's any money left....
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Dec 10, 2010

A Mouse in the House

[From my "Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, November 2010] 

Mus Musculus, the house mousePhoto by George Shuklin
It’s that time of year. The days are getting shorter and colder, and in the face of oncoming winter, most of us start thinking about being warm in our abodes with plenty of food at hand.

We’re not alone in our thinking—or in our houses. That pitter patter of little feet and gnawing at night could be a native white-footed mouse, meadow vole or meadow jumping mouse, but more likely it is Mus musculus, the common house mouse.

The house mouse is usually happy on its own outside in warm weather, but it starts looking for better shelter and food as the winter approaches. As its name implies, the species long ago figured out that we humans offer comfy digs.

Being mouse free since I moved into my new house in February, I was dismayed when a family of mice apparently took advantage of my being gone on vacation over Labor Day week to set up winter housekeeping early. I bought a couple of live traps, caught nine of the little critters in one week, and thought I was done—until mouse poop started to show up in the kitchen again. It seems as if mice sit around thinking about the most offensive place they can leave their poop and strategically place it there—on the kitchen counter, in the silverware drawer….

The average house mouse is 6 inches long (the tail making up a little more than half of the total) and weighs up to one ounce. It is superbly designed to get into almost any opening, needing only about one-quarter inch of clearance. Dryer vents and spaces around pipes and wiring can be entry points if not sufficiently blocked.

The house mouse will consume anything organic, although they prefer cereal grains and vegetables. It has a lifespan in the wild of about two years, and the females can give birth to several litters of 3–10 young each year. They tend to colonize, especially in the winter to conserve heat, and are nocturnal when enough food is available. Although we learned as kids that mice go “squeak,” the house mouse actually has a wide range of vocalizations.

Mus musculus is not native to Virginia but came over from Europe in ships with the colonists. Except for humans, it is the most widely distributed mammal on the planet. Highly adaptive, it’s been nominated as “among 100 of the ‘World’s Worst’ invaders” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

While the house mouse is host to a range of diseases and parasites that can infect humans, including bubonic plague and salmonella, IUCN describes them as “relatively unimportant” as vectors for transmitting these diseases to humans. Unlike deer mice, they do not carry hantavirus. Mice can damage crops and even prey on the young of other animals, sometimes endangering native species, but they also provide some benefit by eating pest insects and are also widely used in laboratory research.

Predators include owls, hawks, fox, coyotes, weasels, raccoons and cats, although I the best mouser I ever came across was a dog named Rhubarb on the ranch where I worked in Wyoming. She could clean out a feed room in a matter of minutes.

I seem to be dealing with just one mouse in my house at this point—one apparently immune to the lure of peanut butter in a live trap. I’ve considered and rejected most other removal strategies, including using snap traps (invented in the nineteenth century) and poisons, and repellents ranging from noise to chemicals. Although some people even risk serious health issues by using mothballs, the chemicals in them can cause all kinds of respiratory and other health issues. I hate to kill anything, find sticky traps to be cruel, and avoid poisons and other chemicals because of health risks to other living things. So I use live traps.

I release my prisoners far from any house. Despite what some may say, mice are quick and brave. I’ve had them try to use me as cover when other options were not available, so I make sure I let them loose somewhere they can easily get under cover. Predators may get them, they may freeze or starve, but at least they’re back in the food chain and out of my kitchen.

Like most house pests, the best way to handle an infestation of mice is to keep them from getting into your house in the first place. Use caulking around outside entry points and caulking, steel wool or insulation for inside points. If you can’t keep them out, store food in containers or pantries that are mouse proof.

Although I raised mice as pets when I was a kid, using them for a science-fair project on genetics, their propensity for chewing up anything they can and spreading their excretions around make them unwelcome guests in my house these days. I haven’t figured out that entry point yet, but I will.

In the meantime, I’m wondering if I should switch peanut butter brands. Nine out of ten mice seemed to like what I’m using, so what’s with this guy?

Dec 4, 2010

Is that a Rufous Hummingbird at Your Feeder?

[The following is an updated version of the original syndicated column, "Wild Ideas," first published in newspapers the week of November 8, 2010. ]

This rufuous hummingbird was spotted at 
a feeder on the Northern Neck. 
(Photo © Fawn Palmer/Virginia Master Naturalist, 
Northern Neck chapter)
A lot of us in Virginia enjoy feeding hummingbirds, putting our nectar feeders out in the spring at the first sign of their arrival, and taking them in after the last hummer disappears for its long trek south in the fall.

While at my brothers' in Southeast Alaska this fall, we were watching rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) at his feeders, swapping stories about his hummers and mine here in Virginia, the ruby-throated (Archiochus colubris). I bemoaned the fact that each of us only got to see one species of hummer where we lived.

While species have a habit of adapting as conditions change, I was still surprised last week to see a posting on a conservation e-mail list from a Master Naturalist on the Northern Neck, Fawn Palmer, describing what she thought was a rufous hummer at her feeder. So I started doing research.

I found out that the range of the rufous had expanded into the Virginia in the 1980s and now extends all the way up the East Coast into the Canadian Maritimes, according to Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Banding Laboratory of the the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Palmer had contacted Peterjohn to come confirm the identity of the hummer at her feeder, which he did.

According to, the rufous is “the most widely distributed hummingbird in North America” and have even been spotted in Siberia. I found a map, at that animated the number of sightings along the East Coast as the year progressed.

This male rufous was spotted at a 
feeder in Loudoun County. 
(Photo © Joe Coleman, 
Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy)
So why hadn't I heard about this? The number of rufous in Virginia has “soared” since the late 1980s, according to the Virginia Society of Ornithology's 2007 Virginia's Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist, but that means from one in 1987 to 13 in 2001. Although its populations continue to increase, the book describes the species as a “rare but increasingly fall transient and winter visitor” throughout Virginia.

I also did a quick poll of some birders I know in the Piedmont and got several reports of the rufous showing up at feeders this year or in past years and one being recorded in a Central Loudoun [County] Christmas Bird Count.

An individual Selasphorus rufus can also fly an incredible distance annually. The Checklist cites an immature female that was captured and banded in Chesterfield, Virginia (a few miles south of Richmond) on November 29, 2001. This bird was recaptured near Red Lodge, Montana, in August 2002, and then recaptured again at the same feeder in Chesterfield on December 1, 2002. That's almost 6,000 miles of traveling in a year—maybe more, since migration of hummingbirds tend to be “U” shaped, dipping to the south.

The expansion in its range is not the only interesting thing about the rufous. Measuring in at a whopping maximum 3.5 inches and 0.12 ounces for the females (who are larger than the males), this tiny bird is often described as being “tough,” “feisty,” and agile enough to outmaneuver other hummers at feeders.

It could be that even more rufous have made Virginia part of their range, as identifying this species can be tricky. The males, mostly garbed in iridescent rufous (the color of oxidized iron), are pretty easy to identify during much of the year. However, during molt, when they swap out old feathers for new, they lose this bright coloration.

Females and especially the young are hard to identify at any time of the year. They can be confused with ruby-throated, and for another bird, the Allen's hummingbird (Selaphorus sasin). The Allen's  shares the rufous' breeding ground in Mexico and has also expanded its range into Virginia.

The females and young are so similar between the rufous and Allen's, says Peterjohn, that he has to use a caliper to measure the outer tail feathers, which are millimeters wider on the rufous, to tell the two species apart. The ratio of rufous to Allen's in Virginia is about 15:1, according to Peterjohn, so sightings are more likely to be of the former. 

Another interesting thing about rufous hummers is that, although they usually arrive here in August, most sightings are in October through December, and even through the winter. How do they survive when the nectar-producing flowers are gone for the year?

While it's true that hummers generally prefer nectar when available, when that''s not available, they rely on insects for food, especially to feed their young. Insects will also appear throughout the fall and winter here whenever temperatures get above 40 degrees.

What about when it's colder? That's where we humans come in. The rufous can overwinter here only if we feed them. The increase in the number of people feeding this them is why their range has expanded, says Peterjohn.

For banding and collection, Peterjohn encourages those who are feeding rufous hummers to continue through Christmas. However, he says, keeping feeders up after that may mean “you're stuck feeding them for the winter” if you want the hummers to survive. People are often inclined to do so, he says, making the rufous “a member of their family.” 

Nov 17, 2010

Wild Times on the Deck

[From my syndicated nature column "Wild Ideas," originally published the week of November 1, 2010]

When you live in a rural county in Virginia, you don't have to go far to see wildlife. The numerous critters on my back deck and within view in the forest beyond have offered me endless hours of wildlife viewing this year.

When I moved to the house on Aaron Mountain in February, I could see the Blue Ridge and outlying mountains from the deck in the back through the then-leafless acres of forest stretching out below. Birds were the most prevalent wildlife within sight, and I could watch their activities all the way up to the canopy of the forest as it receded down the mountain.

I put out a couple of bird feeders, and the usual overwintering native birds showed up—goldfinches in their dull winter plumage, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches. Up in the trees I could see a variety of other birds, mostly in the woodpecker family—hairy woodpeckers, sapsuckers, northern flickers and the large, raucous pileated woodpecker.

I was slow to start my usual routine of bringing the feeders in at night to avoid ursine visitors. Living in Rappahannock County, which has the highest concentration of black bears in Virginia, it was no surprise that one showed up one night in early spring. I became more careful about removing the feeder each night after that.

As spring arrived in earnest, the mating songs of bird, frogs and spring crickets filled the air. Insects started to appear on warmer days, and woodpeckers spent less time at the feeder. The male goldfinches changed to their bright-yellow breeding plumage, although they wouldn't be ready to breed until late summer—later than other songbirds.

The days got warmer, and tiger swallowtail and spring azure butterflies started drifting through the trees. I regularly woke up to the slow, flutelike song of the wood thrush, one of my favorites.

In April, when I saw my first ruby-throated hummingbird, I put out a nectar feeder. First one hummer showed up, then another, until two pairs were visiting regularly. By early summer their young joined them and territorial battles that had mostly been between the males increased.

A bald-faced hornet—with a black body and fierce white, warlike mask—joined the fray, launching itself like a missile at any hummer approaching the feeder. I put a saucer of nectar out for the hornet, which helped with the immediate situation but signaled the start of a long, but not lethal, war between and among species, including huge, yellow-and-black European hornets, assorted other wasps and bee, and large black ants.

When two male hummers clashed a couple of feet from my face, sending one sprawling to the deck  as I was meditating over my morning coffee, I decided I'd had enough. I moved the food to the other end of the deck, letting the various species duke it out down there.

As the summer progressed, I often was thrilled to hear the evening song of a whip-poor-will—sometimes echoed by another further away. The same sound frequently woke me up in the middle of the night when all else was still. It took me back to my childhood, when that sound was common even in the Northern Virginia suburbs where I grew up. By the middle of summer, the whip-poor-will and wood thrush were singing less regularly and finally stopped.

As the weather grew hotter, I took down the seed feeders, knowing that plenty of other food was now available. The hum of cicadas took over the nightly chorus. The occasional luna moth, huge and elegant in it spectacular green attire, visited the deck, as did a massive female eastern Hercules beetle, (Virginia's largest), in drabber olive-green accented with black spots.

Day and night an array of arachnids hunted the myriad insects on the deck. Spindly legged harvestmen, an arachnid cousin of spiders that is commonly called “daddy longlegs,” were everywhere. A large fishing spider with a leg span of almost three inches worked the area under the eaves. In the middle of summer she had a bunch of tiny, ghostlike babies and then, to my dismay, died.

As autumn came and the days shortened and cooled, the hummingbirds started heading south for the winter, the last leaving in early October. The hornets disappeared, although on warm days many thin-wasted paper and mud wasps still drifted gracefully on the deck, intermingling with smaller bees and wasps. Marmorated stink bugs, a foreign invader that had briefly swarmed in before the last cold snap, also vanished—not to be missed.

Wild turkeys move noisily through the forest more regularly now, enjoying this year's abundant crop of acorns and nuts. The squirrels are also burying these seeds or storing them in high tree crannies.

The fall crickets have been in full chorus, about the only sound at night now. With killing frosts on the way, the insects will soon go quiet. The only wild sounds at night will be the occasional blood-curdling cry of a predator making a kill, or a lone owl or fox calling for a mate.

While I'll soon be able to see the mountains again through the trees, I'll long to hear that full chorus of a summer night again.

Nov 16, 2010

Rufous Hummingbirds Have Expanded into Virginia

A male rufous hummingbird spotted at a
feeder in the Piedmont

Photo by Joe Coleman, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy
The subject of my last "Wild Ideas" newspaper column, on rufous hummingbirds' expansion of their range into Virginia, is online at the Rappahannock News website. If you have any more information to add about hummingbirds sighted in the Piedmont or further west in Virginia, please leave a comment here or on the newspaper's website. Since the column was published, I've gotten reports of more rufuous hummingbirds being sighted in the Shenandoah Valley from birders over there. I hope to do followups on the columns when warranted. Look for this week's column, on the house mouse, at the Rappahannock News website on Thursday.

Nov 11, 2010

The Sky Is Falling

[This is the first article in my new syndicated nature column "Wild Ideas," published in October 2010. One way to see the articles earlier is to go to the online edition of my local paper, Rappahannock News. Just search on my name. —Pam Owen]

Except for poison ivy, thorny vines, and the occasional venomous rattlesnake, the Virginia Piedmont forest is usually not too hazardous. This autumn, however, danger has been raining down from above.
The instigators are trees, releasing acorns and nuts—a bumper “hard mast” crop, by early estimates. Mast is the fruit (with seed inside) produced by trees and shrubs that is eaten by wildlife. Because of their hard shells, acorns and nuts are considered “hard mast,” while berries, cherries and other soft fruit make up “soft mast.”

After a lean year in 2009, Virginia has a bumper mast crop.
All but a small area of the 11-acre property where I live on Aaron Mountain, in Castleton, is covered by an oak–hickory forest “community.” Growing conditions (for example, soil, water, and elevation) mostly dictate which trees make up a particular community. As the name implies, this one is dominated by various species of oaks and hickories. The most abundant on this dry ridge are chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), which has long leaves with serrated edges similar to our native chestnut, and pignut hickory (Carya glabra), so named because its nuts are a favorite with pigs. 

Like much in nature, mast crop production is cyclical, with some years better than others, and varying from place to place and among species. Last year the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), which tracks data on mast because of its importance to wildlife, reported a “generally poor” crop. 

This was not true just in Virginia. The online conservation community was a-buzz with similar reports, with even a "No Acorns this Year" discussion group popping up.  Low yields were reported as far north as Nova Scotia and out to the Midwest, although some areas were reporting good crops of some oak species.

This fall, it’s a different story. While official estimates are not yet in, anecdotal evidence abounds. VDGIF develops its mast estimates mostly from reports from the Virginia Department of Forestry, whose foresters are out in the woods regularly and take note of the crop to factor it into forest management. Those foresters are reporting seeing abundant mast, according to VDOF Conservation Specialist Mike Santucci. Although the crop varies from region to region, he says, overall “this is the largest mast crop I’ve seen.”

During my walks in the forest behind my house during the last few weeks, I sometimes have felt under siege, even considered taking an umbrella along for protection. I’ve also done a few awkward dances when treading on the carpet of little round tree spawn that covers the forest floor.

Why was mast so scarce last year and so abundant this year? Noting the early rains this year, Santucci suggests that “conditions were absolutely perfect for producing a bumper crop. Everything has mast on it.” This includes soft-mast crops, he says.

VDGIF Watchable Wildlife Biologist Louis Verner suggests there could be an additional factor at play, referring to the “predator satiation hypothesis.” The idea is that mast-eating wildlife—including Virginia’s native bears, turkeys, roughed grouse, squirrels and deer—get used to eating a certain amount of it each year, and their reproductive strategies are geared to this. To keep these predators from devouring all their seeds and leaving none to sprout, every few years trees “fake out the seedeaters,” as Verner puts it, by producing a really big crop—more than wildlife will consume. Plants and animals that evolve together often develop such survival strategies.

Deer hunters may not be happy with the bounty. With so much good chow scattered throughout the forest, deer are less likely to congregate in search of food, especially in open areas.

Fueled by high-protein food, deer are also likely to produce more offspring. This in turn means more destruction of our native and cultivated plants in future years—and more of us playing “Dodge the Deer” on the roads.

The upside is that the other, less abundant mast eaters are also likely to have a boost in reproduction. For the first time since I moved onto the property last February, a flock of turkeys has been foraging regularly in the woods behind the house. Bears will also benefit, likely waiting longer to den up this year because of the abundant food.

And then there are the squirrels. From the back deck, where I like to start the day’s challenges quietly over a cup of coffee while enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the forest, I can hear the squirrels noisily burying acorns. Since squirrels don’t eat a lot of what they bury, they’re basically little foresters, planting the seeds that will become future mast producers. 

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow...
When the shower of mast began in early September, many acorns were green or beige, and pignuts were securely wrapped in their shells. This week, walking through the forest, the acorns have mostly turned to a mosaic of brown or black. Many have sprouted and are on their way to becoming oaks. The pignut shells have opened up to release the nuts inside.

The footing out back will be tricky for some time, but it’s worth it to see wildlife enjoying the bounty. Next year, who knows?

Oct 7, 2010

Fall Light

[A version of this piece was published in 2002 in my Rappahanock News nature column, "Backyard Happenings," after another long, dry summer.]

After the long, hot, dry summer, many of us in Rappahannock County wondered if our normally spectacular fall would have any color at all, or if the leaves would merely turn brown and drop to the ground unceremoniously. Then, with its usual unpredictability, nature turned around and dumped a load of rain on us, accompanied finally by seasonably cool weather. Instead of brown, we got to enjoy one of the more spectacular fall leaf-turnings.

In Rappahannock, fall color means more than local folks being able to enjoy aesthetic appeal. Our economy depends on tourism as well as agriculture, and both would have suffered tremendously if the drought had continued into fall. Not to say that it’s over, but the recent rains have put a pleasing dent in the water deficit and given us the fall color that we’re famous for.

The incredible shifting in light in the last week, as fronts and rain came and went, made me stop what I was doing more than once to admire the show. It reminded me of of the rain that finally came in fall after a drought in 2002. One image sticks out in my mind particularly. The clouds were racing across the mountains early one morning, they suddenly opened up to create what in Southeast Alaska (where it can rain 365 days a year) is called a "glory hole" – a break in the clouds that lets the sun shine through and light up a small area of the ground below. The term came from mining, referring to an open-pit mine, alluding to the treasures that lay beyond it. This glory hole opened up over Thornton Gap down to Sperryville. With all the moisture in the air, the light had a soft, glowing luminosity that reminded me of the nineteenth-century painters of the Hudson River School of art.

“In the Mountains,” by Alfred Bierstadt,
one of the best-known Luminist painters
These painters used light effects to dramatically portray such atmospheric elements as mist and sunsets. This technique became known as “Luminism.” (For more on Luminism, including examples of Luminist paintings, check out the online Art Encyclopedia.) The National Gallery of Art has some of these paintings in its permanent collection, but several years ago it featured a show of just Luminist paintings. As someone who gets spine tingly anytime light breaks through the clouds during a storm, or when mists diffuse light to create a soft, magical glow, this show was heaven (no pun intended) for me. Today the style would be considered overly romantic, but the real show in nature can be as spectacular – as it often is after a rain in Blue Ridge country.
While I’ve seen glory holes open up over Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, and myriad other magnificent natural settings, the quality of light when they occur in the Blue Ridge is somehow different. The light manages to be intense yet soft, more of a caress of the landscape than a sudden shock of light. In the fall, the combination of this soft light and the glowing fall colors can be an unbeatable combination.

In Alaska, when hikers meet on a trail, they often acknowledge their shared love of that natural wonderland they’re hiking through by saying “another day in paradise.” When a glory hole breaks open during a fall rain in Rappahannock, we could easily say the same.

Oct 6, 2010

End of the Little War

The war is over…for this year. Although the skirmishes were big, the combatants were small. It started in the spring, when the first ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) showed up around the deck in back of the house I rent.

Living in Rappahannock County, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I bring in any bird feeders every night to avoid attracting the neighborhood bears, who are particularly hungry in the spring. To make it easier, I put putting out the hummingbird feeders until I hear that first hum of wings or catch the first glimpse of these little hovering dynamos.

While some parts of the United States, particularly in the south, enjoy having several species of hummingbirds migrate in to breed in the summer, only the ruby throated comes to the Mid-Atlantic and further north in the east. It measures about 3.5 inches in length. The males have a bright, iridescent red patch on their throats that gives them their name. It actually only appears red when the sun catches the feathers.

The pattern at the feeder is pretty much the same every year once I put it out. At first I see one or two hummingbirds. Eventually usually at least two pairs show up. The males start the war by trying to keep each other away from the feeder, but the females are pretty much left alone to feed and do just that. After all, they need all the nutrition they can get to make baby hummers.

By early summer, the wars begin in earnest, with the babies now grown enough to come to the feeder, and the adults of both genders becoming more aggressive about defending the food source as they start layering on fat for the long flight back to Central America for the winter. Once the wars start in earnest, I put out a second feeder, so that I have two about twenty feet from each other on my long, south-facing deck.

While this year putting out a second feeder dialed down the skirmishes a bit, I found my morning coffee often interrupted with an aerial battle in front of my face that sometimes ended with one bird knocked to the deck. Beyond that, the birds don’t really do much damage to each other, although they are arguably fiercer, ounce for ounce (weighing an average of 1/8 ounce), than any other species of bird in our native ecosystem.

Since I take the feeders in at night, I’m also often approached when I go out in the morning by one of the tiny combatants, who seems to be urging me to get the food out, darn it. I keep both feeders where they are—relatively close to each other–because they’re sheltered by the deck roof, which runs about half the length of the deck, and because it’s easier to get the feeders in each night to avoid ursine visitors.

A lone bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) is lured
from a hummingbird feeder with a dish of nectar
At other houses I’ve rented in the county, this scenario has been played out over and over. However, this year, at the new house, the war was stepped up a notch. A couple of weeks after I put the second feeder out, a bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) showed up at it. This is a beautiful, tough little (three-quarters of an inch) hornet in the yellowjacket genus, black with a bright white face. It’s called a hornet in the United States because it builds a hanging paper nest, but it is not considered the “true” hornet (of the Vespa genus) native to Europe and Asia.

I watched as the bald-faced hornet worked the area around the little plastic blossoms through which the hummingbirds can insert their beaks to get the nectar. He also checked underneath for any drips that might serve as a meal. This one insect probably wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if he’d been content to scavenge the hummers’ leftovers quietly and leave the birds alone. However, he was a bald-faced hornet, and the bright mask on his face telegraphed his personality.

Hummingbirds, as tough as they are with each other, generally avoid any insects—ants, bees, wasps, or hornets—that are also attracted to nectar feeders. They’ll still try to get at the nectar while carefully keeping away from the smaller critters. However, the white-faced hornet is no shy, retiring bug. Its fierce mask gives fair warning, as war masks do on humans. It’s ready, willing, and able to defend treasure that it finds. Females are known to sting repeatedly if their nest is disturbed.

I watched as, over and over, a hummingbird would approach the feeder. As it did, the little hornet would turn around to face the bird, then launch itself like a rocket at the feathered intruder, driving it off. Of course, at this point there were at least eight hummers, including their offspring, vying for a turn at the feeder, so as one would be driven off another would attempt to sneak in to get a slurp of the nectar before it, too, was driven off—either by the hornet or by one of the bird’s feathered cohorts.

More bald-faced hornets arrive
From one lone white-faced sentry, the skirmishes expanded to inter- and intraspecies ongoing combat as more white-faced hornets were attracted to the feeder. At this point, I decided to use a carrot-and-stick approach to try to at least separate insect and bird competitors. I put a shallow dish with the nectar a few feet from the feeder, on the railing of the fence inclosing the deck, while spraying the feeder with Naturapel, a pepper-based, ecofriendly insect repellent made by Cutter.

The ploy worked. The hornet, while occasionally cruising the feeder first, quickly figured out that accessing the nectar was much easier on the dish. The war settled back into a relative peace at the feeder, broken up occasionally by competition among the hummers.

This more-or-less calm in which I could sit in my comfy deck chair a few feet from the feeder and have my coffee in the morning didn’t last. The little bald-faced hornet I was seeing pretty regularly was not the only one in the area, and others soon started to arrive at the nectar-filled dish, along with a few smaller, less-aggressive wasps. Even then, the relative peace reigned as long as each of these pollinators kept a decent distance from the others.

European hornets compete for nectar
with much smaller native ant and wasp species
Soon the dynamic at the nectar dish was further thrown off by an even more aggressive intruder–the European, or “giant” hornet (Vespa crabro). This large (about an inch long), yellow-and-brown beast is an invasive competitor to our native wasps.

Skirmishes once again broke out at the dish and the feeder as all the nectar eaters jockeyed for control of the food. With birds and hornets, small and large, duking it out so near where I was trying to enjoy the calm of the morning, I’d had it.

I moved the dish way down the deck railing, beyond the two hummingbird feeders. The insects followed, thankfully, and for the most part kept away from the feeders, as long as I kept dousing the feeders with repellent. I could once more sip my coffee in peace and enjoy the view of the forest unfolding down the slope behind the house. Butterflies, woodpeckers, the song of the wood thrush—it was great.

As the summer stretched on, and it got drier and drier, more insects came to the deck to seek nectar and their predators followed them. Spiders, small and extremely large, were omnipresent. A couple of species of nonagressive paper wasps built nests under the deck roof and carefully visited the dish of nectar, avoiding their more aggressive cousins. Harvestmen (an arachnid of the Opiliones order, commonly called "daddy longlegs," along with many other species) were everywhere. All the predators, combined with the effect of the dry ridge on which my house was built, made the deck relatively mosquito free, so evenings on the deck were also a joy. I sometimes took my laptop out there to watch a ballgame while enjoying the animal activity between pitches.

The hummingbird males still seemed to spend most of their time trying to drive off other hummers instead of feeding. Eventually, I found these little battles, with the constant humming and dive-bombing, still too disruptive and removed the feeder closest to my chair, letting the birds duke it out at the other feeder. As long as I kept the feeder and the dish full of nectar, the feeding frenzies at the other end of the deck were low in intensity. Every day there was at least a brief detente where all four feeding stations on the feeder were occupied by hummers—albeit usually by females.

Then another insect showed up to disrupt this relative calm—large black ants. I’m not sure which of the many species of ant these were, but they were big and plentiful, ate night and day, and didn’t seem to mind the repellent much. Being a big fan of E. O. Wilson, who coined the word “biodiversity” and focused his studies as a biologist on ants, I have a huge respect for this insect family, Formicidae. Their social behavior and skills, including “farming” other insects, are fascinating to observe. However, the numbers and size of this particular species were too daunting for the hummers. The only strategy I could figure out was to move the feeder, which I did. Every few days, when the ants had found its new location, I’d move it a few feet up or down the deck.

This went on until last week. The hummers had slowly been disappearing, dwindling from at least eight to just a couple who occasionally visited the feeder. The rest had undoubtedly left for their long flight south for the winter. Now they’re all gone, and I’ve brought the remaining feeder in. The insects, which don’t migrate, are still enjoying the dish full of nectar and, so I’ll continue to put refill the dish for a while.

Having coffee on the deck is a more peaceful experience now. I can watch the leaves slowly turning from green to various warmer shades and dropping to the ground. The quiet is somewhat disrupted by the steady drop of acorns and hickory nuts from the bumper crop the trees are producing this year (good for our mast-crop eaters, such as turkeys and bears). The sun is shifting more to the south but staying lower, and the mornings are definitely cooling off. It won’t be long before I won’t want to keep the door into the kitchen open to listen to the morning programs on NPR for fear of letting too much cold air in.

Soon the view will open up on the deck to reveal the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and the small outlier hills and low mountains to the south. I’ll start watching admiring the view over coffee from inside the kitchen, where it will be cozier on the deck. The songs of insects will disappear and those of birds will become less diverse and more intermittent, dying into the quiet of winter. At that point, I’ll miss the frenzied little war on my deck and look forward to putting the hummingbird feeder out again next spring.

Jul 14, 2010

A New Beginning

After being distracted for more than a year, I've decided to jump-start this blog again by mixing some of my writings that have already been published elsewhere, but edited to make more sense for the blog, as well as begin writing new entries. I think it's good to start with a slight reworking of the first piece I wrote for a nature column I had in a local newspaper a few years ago. Here goes...

As a child, when the suburbs got too hot, my parents had put my brother and me in the station wagon, loaded up a picnic lunch, and headed from the suburbs to Shenandoah National Park. Dogwoods in bloom, Bambi around every turn, the air fresh and clean, and creepy crawlies everywhere. I was in heaven. Rambling through forests, creeks, and fields was where I was most at home.

In fact, some of the fiercest battles I had with my mother when I was a kid was over nightly baths. Over each day, and particularly in summer, I had carefully acquired a fine patina of dirt from catching crayfish in the local creeks, chasing rabbits in the fields, and climbing up trees to look in birds’ nests. It wasn’t that I was dirty by nature but that I reveled in the smell and feel of all things natural. My dog and I would come back reeking of nature—him more than I because he had an obsession for all things dead and wonderful.

Fortunately, by the time I entered puberty I had discovered that boys could be more than my frog-catching companions, academia could occasionally answer some of the questions I had about nature, and cleanliness did have a value. (The last was more in conjunction with the discovery of boys as dating material than with discovering the challenges of academia.)

As I moved from budding naturalist to budding journalist, my intimacy with nature seemed to fall away. What was once my natural habitat and my obsession became an academic interest and no longer involved having creek muck in my ears and pine pitch on my pants.

However, I rediscovered my passion when, as a young journalist, I headed to the Rocky Mountain West. As an extension to my love of nature came an interest in its domestication—farming and ranching. I was also pursuing a passion for a mythical species I had experienced mostly through television and movies—cowboys.
After working on a small but prestigious paper on Montana, where I was given the city/county beat instead of the agricultural beat I longed for, I decided to learn about ranching first hand and went to work on a cattle ranch at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. There I was mayordomo for the owner and did a little cow and horse work and irrigation.

On the ranch, I got to know about things that go bump really loudly in the night—well, actually, where things scream like someone being murdered (cougars) or howl in cacophony outside your cabin door for hours (coyotes). I was amazed by the masses of box-elder beetles that showed up on my walls in May and then disappeared by July; and by the flies that blackened my windows in August and were gone by October.

After further ramblings around the country, I found my way back to the hills of my first love—the Blue Ridge Mountains—and all its natural splendor. Living within sight of Shenandoah National Park, I now get to wonder why nothing seems to eat Asian ladybugs that cover our walls sporadically, why the Asian Tree of Heaven can seem to proliferate anywhere here but our native chestnuts can’t survive into maturity, why some bears are perfectly content eating the apples from the trees next to my yard while others insist on smashing hummingbird feeders for the nectar inside, and so many other things.

Although I'm a certified Master Naturalist, I will admit freely to being a rank amateur as a naturalist — but one with a passionate, lifelong interest in everything that walks, talks, creeps, swims, crawls, flies, or grows. While I studied advanced biology in school, and even pursued a degree in communications and environmental management, I’ve learned more about nature from rambling through it, carefully observing it, and then pursuing answers to the questions its complexity and diversity invokes. That’s what I hope to do in this blog.

I’ll also stray off onto other topics. I’m ADD. That’s what I do. Oh look! A spider! I wonder why some spiders have hexagonal webs, some have round webs, some seem to have been drunk when making their webs, and some have no webs at all; and why some tiger swallowtail butterflies are yellow and others are black; why….