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?