Tufted Titmouse (Common 10 Songbirds)

Tufted titmouse.

Go ahead, say it out loud.

Tufted titmouse!

Now laugh out loud just like you’re laughing on the inside.

For most of the world, and particularly for juvenile men (which includes pretty much all of them) you might as well call this poor bird “Fluffy boob rat!”

Actually, the word “tit” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for anything small.  Hence, the titmouse is not alone; there are also coal tits, willow tits, varied tits, sultan tits, crested tits, blue tits, and, of course, great tits.

But there’s much more to these little songbirds than a slightly naughty giggle.

 

A tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor) in winter. Photo provided by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons.

 The tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor) is a regular at backyard feeders in the winter.  They’re cousins to the chickadee (both in the family Paridae) and will often flock with them.

The titmouse is a bit larger than the chickadee, though, at six inches from beak tip to tail tip, cool gray above with a rusty underwing and ecru belly.  Their most outstanding feature is the triangular crest of feathers atop their heads, their “tuft”.

Titmouse is also a shade more standoffish than the chickadee, and may make fewer trips to the feeder when humans are present or visible through a window.

That bit of shyness is easily overcom, sitting still and keeping quiet.  I love to sit and watch my feeders over my morning cup of coffee, and as long as I sit two or three feet back from the window and keep my mug in my hands I seem to meet the titmice’s trust standards.

This is exactly where you’ll find me for most of this weekend, in fact, participating in he annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

In just a few weeks now – the vernal equinox is only five weeks and two days away, joy! – the titmice males will begin singing their spring mating song to try to win the hearts of the females, calling eight alternating high and low notes that sound like ” Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter”.  

 

A tufted titmouse in summer, photographed by Ken Thomas and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

 
Have a great Great Backyard Bird Count weekend.  I hope you see plenty of tits in your own backyard.  (Stop laughing, gutter mind!). ūüėú

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

You know how parents do not have a favorite child?

Well, I do not have a favorite bird.  I love them all equally.

Except . . . well, I may have a little extra love for the chickadee.

My mother nicknamed me Dee when I was born, and the name seriously stuck.¬† Not only do all of the friends I grew up with still call me Dee, but all of the kids I work with at the nature center know me as “Ms. Dee”.

And you kind of have to love a bird that calls your name:

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!¬† Chick-a-da-dee-dee-dee!”

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This Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) was photographed by Dan Pancamo and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to this obviously superlative call, chickadees are also incredibly brave little birds, a trait that I both admire and aspire to.

At just 4.5 and 5.5 inches from beak to tail, respectively – we get both Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) here and I’ve spent exactly zero time learning to tell them apart, which I’m surprisingly okay with – they are among the smallest of the common songbirds.¬† So, you might expect them to be shy or timid, but the opposite is true.

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This black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) was photographed by Minette Layne and provided via Wikimedia Commons. The guide books note that the black-capped has buff colored sides whereas the Carolina chickadee’s sides are all very light gray. I must take my fancy new binocs up to my feeder watching chair and see if I can tell which visit my feeder.

They’re often first to the backyard feeder, happy to claim their place among the bigger birds and, seemingly, much less bothered by humans.

On my recent owling walk with the NRV bird club, chickadees nearly surrounded us along the length of the Deerfield Trail.  They sat boldly on low branches, checking out our oddly large eyes (read:  binoculars) with friendly curiosity.

They must have confidence in their rapid wing beats and acrobatic flight.  They can afford to be brave and inquisitive because they know they can be gone in a heartbeat if they sense danger.

I love to watch them in my backyard, flitting back and forth from our yellow birch tree to the hanging feeder, cracking one big black oil sunflower seed at a time with their little, determined beaks.

Just thinking of them makes me smile.

 

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

 

 

 

 

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

It’s January now, and I feel the opposing needs of my body’s evolutionary and cultural pulls:

  1.   Evolution pulls me to pack on insulating fat and sleep as much as possible to survive this cold, dark season, but
  2. Culture pulls me to burn off those holiday calories so that I can live a healthier and longer life.

Culture winds because it keeps me from having to buy (new) larger pants.

So, I was out on Sunday, dutifully braving the windy mid 30s temperatures (I know – in a month or so I’ll dream of temperatures that high), walking my dog.¬† Usually I don’t expect to see wildlife when I walk the dog because, well, he’s a giant furry predator.

But this Sunday, nature rewarded me for getting out to walk:

I made my first ever positive identification of an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)!

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A male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) standing on prey it has pinned to the ground. Image provided by Bill Bouton via Wikimedia Commons. (The original post on Wikimedia Commons lists this as a female kestrel, but after my research, I believe the photographer got it wrong.)

The dog and I were walking past a fallow corn field when a crow-sized bird swept overhead.¬† But it didn’t flap like a crow or hold its wings like a crow – or any of the other birds I’m used to seeing, for that matter – so I was drawn to watch it for a little while.

It took up an airborne stance much like a red-tailed hawk “kiting” (see my Hanging Rock post for more info on that); it faced into the wind and held its wings half contracted, using the wind to hold its body relatively still 50ish feet above the ground.¬† From this position, I know, it was surveying the entire field with its superior vision, looking for a furry little morsel to eat.

I watched for a minute more, trying desperately to pick out field marks from 100 yards away against a bright blue sky. (Oh, how I wished for the awesome new binoculars I got for Christmas.¬† I’m going to have to start wearing them everywhere – do you think I can get away with it if I call them a “statement necklace”?)¬† It was difficult, but I was able to make out a rusty red head, a many-banded flared tail, and sharp, angled wings.

Reluctantly, largely motivated by an antsy pooch and a seriously cold wind, I moved on.¬† By the time we passed back by the field, the kestrel was gone, but those few field marks and some research in my guidebooks helped me not only positively ID the kestrel, but also to fill in the rest of the bird’s story.

Kestrels may be the smallest of our falcons, but they’re fierce and hungry – a big predator in a small package.¬† They hunt from perches or in mid-air (what I witnessed), searching open fields for small rodents and insects to eat.¬† They drop down on their prey and pin it to the ground with their talons, eating it right there or carrying it back to a perch to consume.

This choice in hunting method and diet differentiates kestrels from the small hawks (accipiters, e.g. Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk) and the other falcons (e.g. Merlin, Peregrine Falcon) because those birds prefer an airborne, avian diet – snatching songbirds right out of the air.¬† You may see one or all of these species keeping a wary eye on the bird feeder in your yard.¬† Don’t fret; this is just the energy of your bird feed spreading up the food chain, keeping all of the birds alive in the cold.

Not that a kestrel won’t keep an eye on your feeder if it’s hungry; kestrels are often called “sparrow hawks” due to their taste for house sparrows.¬† I don’t see them at my feeder because they’d prefer not to land in my back yard, where the ground level is ruled by the aforementioned giant, furry predator.

I was also able to ID the kestrel I saw as a female, for three reasons:

  1. ¬†It had a rufous head (males’ heads are slate gray);
  2. it had a many banded tail (males’ tails are mostly rufous with black edges); and
  3. it occupied an open field hunting territory.

Apparently, female kestrels move south into their winter range earlier than males, and so they get the best territories.  The males are relegated to scrubbier and more forested territories, where they have to compete with the the small hawks and falcons for part of their diet.

Kestrels have a lot of territory to choose from, though, as they make themselves at home in both city and country.  Their smaller size allows them to hunt fewer square miles and still stay well fed.  (Think of them as the daytime counterpart of the Eastern Screech Owl.)

With a little luck, a little willpower, and a lot of warm layers, I’ll walk this trail more often as the winter weeks go by and see this fierce falcon female again soon.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

The most teeth of any mammal in North America.

There are plenty of cool facts about Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), but that one’s my favorite.

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This Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) was photographed by Cody Pope and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

How many teeth?  50!  (Adult humans have a measly 32.)

And those many, tiny teeth are employed chewing everything from fruits and grains, to insects, earthworms and snails, to snakes and mice and even carrion.¬† Opossums will even eat the skeleton of a dead animal that all of the other scavengers have left behind!¬† They’ve also been known to feast nightly on pet food left out for cats and dogs at night.

Opossums are about the size of a house cat, but it would be unfortunate to mistake it for one.¬† You do not want to startle a creature with that many teeth while it’s eating Purina from Fluffy’s bowl.¬† (Another excuse not to make that last run taking the trash out at night.)¬† You may be lucky and only get an intimidating show of all of those teeth, with hissing for extra fright value, or they may excrete foul smelling liquid from glands on their hind end.¬† If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a perfect impression of those 50 teeth on your ankle to show the doctor at the emergency room; biting the dust instead of biting you is never guaranteed.

Playing “possum,” or feigning death is actually a reaction of last resort for the opossum; it’s more like fainting into a coma from extreme fear and stress.¬† You’d think this would make them highly desirable to predators, but it actually benefits the opossum in two ways:¬† predators who eat live food will be turned off and not eat a “dead” opossum, and large animals protecting their young will not fear, and therefore not fight, a frozen lump of fur.

Opossums are a classic example of Virginia’s nocturnal creatures.¬† They have excellent night vision, with a tapetum lucidum (reflector in the back of the eye common among nocturnal creatures) that doubles the amount of light they see in what we would call “pitch dark”.¬† That tapetum also reflects the light of a flash light back as orange, which is another great way to distinguish them from a house cat, whose “eyeshine” is yellow.

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A Virginia opossum at night – if you look very closely, you can see a hint of the orange eyeshine, but since the camera’s flash isn’t shining directly at the opossum’s eye, this picture doesn’t show the full effect. Photograph taken by M. Betley and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

These little nocturnal predator/scavengers are at home in both forests and suburbs, in the trees as well as on the ground, and will nest in empty tree cavities, which they pack with leaves, or in another animal’s burrow.

They are also North America’s only marsupial, growing both in the mother’s womb and then, later, in her pouch.¬† Opossum babies, called “joeys” just like their Australian marsupial cousins, the kangaroos, are born tiny, the size of a honeybee.¬† They then crawl up into their mothers pouch where as many as 13 of them safely nurse and grow for another 10 weeks.

When the babies finally poke their heads out into the moonlight, mom lets them ride on her back instead of in her belly pouch, caring for them for another three months.  They can even use their long (sometimes longer than their whole body), furless, pink and prehensile tails to grab and lift joeys that have fallen back on to their backs.

And opossums don’t wait for sprint to start making babies – their breeding season begins now, in December, and may stretch all the way through next October.¬† In that time females may have two or even three litters.¬† They make up for a short life span (only about two years in the wild) by being prolific joey producers, which is good news for hungry coyotes, large owls, red foxes, and hawks.¬† And, sometimes, humans.¬† ‘Possum stew, anyone?

Opossums are active year-round, even on the coldest winter nights.  To observe them (again, from afar, smart people), go out with a flashlight and look for that orange eyeshine, and listen for the raspy clicking sounds they use to communicate.

 

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  Learn more about common nocturnal animals with these posts:

Eastern Screech Owl

Skunk

Hawking the Road (Red-tailed Hawk, Common 10 Birds of Prey)

The only reason I tolerate long drives is because I can look at beautiful vistas and try to spot wildlife.

My particular favorite is looking for hawks in the barren trees at the side of the highway during holiday driving.

Whether I’m driving or riding shotgun, spotting hawks in the roadside trees is fairly easy; I just scan for lumpy branches.¬† Most of the time the lumps turn out to be squirrel nests or clumps of leaves caught in a crag, but maybe 1 out of 10 lumps is a hawk!

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A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree. Check out that tail and those talons! Photo provided by MONGO via Wikimedia Commons.

The easiest, largest lump to find is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  They perch, still as statues, in the trees above the median, scanning the grassy area for a juicy little rodent that they can swoop down on and snatch up with their talons.

Red-tailed hawks, sitting nearly two feet tall and with a wing span over four feet, are the largest hawks in this area, beating out the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) by a few inches and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) by over a foot.

Red-tails, like most hawks, are not the large birds you see soaring in the sky most often; those are usually vultures.¬† Look for how the bird holds its wings – if they’re in a slight uptilt, forming a wide V, think vulture.¬† A lighter bird with wings held flat means you may be seeing a hawk.

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Red-tailed hawk in flight. They look like a brown lump when perched, but when they’re flying overhead you’ll not only a brown head on a mostly light colored body, except for that rufous tail, of course! Photo provided by Bear golden retriever via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-tails will take advantage of a thermal (rising column of warm air) to carry them up to great heights where they can survey a whole field for prey.¬† They’ll also use a mountain updraft to hunt via “kiting,” which I described in my Hanging Rock post.¬† Also, it must be noted that the springtime soaring and free-fall coitus of a mated pair is fairly spectacular.

In everyday life, though, hawks are watchers and swoopers as they go about the business of catching the little mammals that make up the large part of their diet, including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels.

Whether flying or perching, the red tail is this hawk’s most reliable identifying feature.¬† A rusty red that many birders describe as “rufous” colors their entire tail, though it can also look peach or orange if sunlight is pouring through it.

Though you’ll pass them fast at highway speeds, you’ll be surprised how much detail you can see in a perched hawk.¬† I even spot the little hawks (Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned) from the highway sometimes.

You’ll have to take the first few miles to let your eyes adjust to differentiating lumps while also not driving off the road, but after that a long drive can be hawk heaven!¬† Even the kiddos might pry their eyes from their tablets to look for a hawk or two; have the right side of the car compete against the left side for who can find the most hawks.¬† My best count yet was headed west on Route 66 in northern Virginia after Christmas a few years ago – I saw a hawk every mile for at least 17 miles!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Eastern Screech Owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

This year, so help me, I’m going to see an owl.

I haven’t seen one since we moved here from Louisiana.¬† (There I saw a barred owl sleeping on a tree branch while I waited in the pickup line at my daughter’s school.)

It’s not that we don’t have owls here – we have plenty!¬† I’m just a very diurnal creature, unwilling to leave my cozy bed in the wee hours to go looking for very nocturnal owls.

But, this time, I’m going to do it!¬† I’ve just signed up to be a part of this year’s local Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 19.¬† A fellow master naturalist and expert-level bird watcher talked me into it.

I’ve never participated in a Christmas Bird Count before because they start so early in the morning.¬† Voluntarily getting up and out of the house to meet the birding group by 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday in December???¬† No thank you.

But to see owls, I’m going to make the sacrifice:¬† I’ll meet my group not at 8:00 a.m., but (and here’s where I wish I was about to say 8:00 p.m.) at 5:15 a.m.!¬†

In my (only mostly joking) opinion, 5:15 a.m. shouldn’t even be an actual time, legally.¬† If not legally, then at least morally.¬† I’m surprised the presidential candidates haven’t weighed in on this crucial issue.

At 5:15 a.m. on that Saturday, I can guarantee that I will come prepared, dressed in many layers and with two full thermoses of piping hot, creamy, sweet coffee.¬† I cannot, however, guarantee that I’ll be willing to share any of that coffee.

There are no guarantees that we’ll see owls (though going with experienced birders who are likely to lead me to some is 90% of my motivation to participate), but if we do, it will be one of the four owls native to Virginia:

Good Morning Sunshine

A barn owl that I photographed in its enclosure at a zoo in Florida a few years ago. I sell this image as a blank note card entitled “Good Morning, Sunshine” in my Etsy shop.

  1. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
  2. Barred Owl (Strix varia)
  3. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
  4. Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

It’s this last one, the Eastern Screech Owl, that I’m most hoping to see.¬† The first three are big and impressive and so often used in birds of prey demonstrations and as zoo specimens that I’ve actually met them all before.

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See? It is adorable! This rufous morph Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) was photographed by Bill Waller and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Humans just love big eyes, and the Mighty Mite has champion peepers, which is probably the reason for its genus name “megascops”, which means “big eyes”. “Asio” means horned owl, and our little buddy here does have those classic owl feather tufts that look like horns.

Not so with the “Mighty Mite”; at a Lilliputian 9 inches tall, this stealthy, nocturnal hunter is less than half the other owls’ size and more than twice their cuteness.¬† They are absolutely adorable, though probably not if you’re a mouse or earthworm or tadpole, which are all part of the owl’s diet.¬† (To learn more about any owl’s diet, try dissecting an owl pellet – the little ball of indigestible fur, feathers, and bones that they regurgitate after eating.)

These are cavity-nesting owls, small enough to make a home in a tree cavity that’s not much larger than they are.¬† In the wild they choose wooded areas to live in and they prefer to be near water.¬† Eastern screech owls will also happily move in to an owl box put up by a homeowner and help rid the property of insect and rodent pests for free!¬† These owls can be fairly common even in suburban areas and small towns (there are several living in downtown Blacksburg) as long as there are trees in which to roost!

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Here’s a photo of the grey morph of the Eastern screech owl, showing off those “horns.” Photo provided by Wolfgang Wanderer via Wikimedia Commons.

What the Eastern screech owl won’t do for you, unfortunately, is screech.¬† Or maybe that’s fortunate, especially if they’re living in your neighborhood!¬† Screech owls’ calls are better described as whinnies or ghostly trills.¬† Listen to their calls at their All About Birds webpage.

The screech for which they are misnamed was probably that of a barn owl, another species which doesn’t mind being around humans as long as there are rodents around to catch.¬† (Where there are barns, there’s generally stored grain or hay, which rodents come in to eat and then are, in turn, eaten by the barn owl.)¬† Hear the barn owl’s screeching scream call at its All About Birds webpage.

It’s good to be able to differentiate the calls, too, because a birder is much more likely to hear a screech owl than see one; their brown, grey, and white plumage pattern gives them excellent camouflage against tree bark.

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Now imagine this fellow not leaning out of the tree cavity and the cavity 10 feet off of the ground. Practically impossible to see. I’ve got my hopes pinned on a flash from those bright yellow, reflective “megascops”.

But I’m going to see one.¬† Why else would I get up and out by 5:15 a.m.???

 

Another #10minwri on the Common 10.  This one actually turned into a #20minwri, but I was having too much fun to stop in the middle!

Ursa Major (Common 10 Constellations)

I have a thing for bears.  All types and all sizes, I love them.

My husband, whom I nicknamed “Bear” 20 years ago, brought me out to “Bear Creek Cabin” for the weekend so that I could see the stars.

And I do – the stars here are diamonds spilled on velvet, so many that you feel the universe is just showing off – but no matter where I am, small town, big city, or backwoods, I can count on seeing at least one constellation:

Ursa Major (The Great Bear)

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A print of Ursa Major, showing stars visible to the naked eye and those to faint to see. Provided by Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Most folks know it as “the big dipper,” but, as I said, I’ve got a thing for bears.

The big dipper¬†can be seen in the northern sky every night of the year in Virginia; it circles around the north star with its cup turned down in spring, as if it’s pouring out seeds and rain on the waiting land, turned up in fall as if it’s scooping up the harvest, and held sideways in summer and winter.

The constellation Ursa Major is larger than the seven stars of the big dipper (the big dipper is technically an “asterism” within the great bear). ¬†The four star cup of the dipper forms the great bear’s body and its 3 star handle creates the bear’s tail. ¬†For a full bear’s body, though, the full constellation includes several more stars forming legs and a head, for a total of 16 or 18 stars all together.

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These are the visible stars of Ursa major. Image provided by By Stu10255 via Wikimedia Commons

The two stars that form the forward edge of the bear’s body or the dipper’s cup make a straight line to the last tip of the cup of the¬†little dipper (Ursa Minor – the smaller bear) which just so happens to be the north star.

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Finding Ursa Minor and the north star (Polaris) from Ursa Major. Image provided by By Bonńć via Wikimedia Commons.

The big bear always helps me find my way in the night sky. ¬†Once I’ve found it I know where to look for the north star, where to find the little bear (which is only about a quarter of the big bear’s size) and, following that same straight line across the heavens to that “W” of stars that is the constellation Cassiopeia.

You can see Ursa Major now, in December, in the northeaster sky here in Virginia around midnight. ¬†(I don’t mind staying up late, to see it I’m on vacation!)

For more Ursa Major info, check out EarthSky and Space.

Another #10minwri on the Common 10.

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

I wasn’t sure which species to write about today . . . until a small herd of white-tailed does started browsing in the yard right outside our cabin.

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Does in the yard! We can be fairly certain they’re all females because none have antlers. Male white-tailed deer grow antlers in September for the autumn mating season and don’t drop them until January.

Yeah, that pretty much clinched it.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the only member of the deer family that lives wild in Virginia.  They make up for being the only species with huge population numbers.

The lack of natural predators (cougars, wolves) has allowed the deer population to explode. ¬†Even in a (small) town like Blacksburg, the deer numbers are estimated at 17 animals per acre. ¬†That’s about 211,000 deer within the town’s borders!

The deer outside right now, though, are country deer. ¬†They’re browsing the close cropped lawn around the cabin. ¬†(We’re at a wonderful cabin in the Grayson Highlands for a couple of days to celebrate our 20th anniversary with velvety black, star-filled night skies and, hopefully, a glimpse of the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park.)

They’re browsing at mid-day, which is either a sign that they’re unafraid of anything in the area – including humans – or that food sources are scarce. ¬†Usually, deer are crepuscular creatures; they’re most active in the dim hours of dawn and dusk, resting in the forest in the brightest hours of day and darkest hours of night.

During those dawn and dusk hours, their warm, cafe au lait fur blends in nearly perfectly with the leaf litter on the forest floor and the taupe trunks of trees.

The deer aren’t named for the brown fur, though, but for the white fur on the underside of their tail. ¬†When they feel safe and relaxed, their tail hangs down and its brown top completes their camouflage. ¬†When frightened, though, they pop their tails up like a big white flag while running away.

Biologists have two theories about why the species has evolved with an foot-long white target on their backside:

  1. The white tail serves as a signal to other members of the herd that there’s trouble nearby and helps the herd keep together as they move away.
  2. The white tail is what chasing predators focus on while following the deer, but since the deer are extremely maneuverable and run in a leaping, zig zagging pattern, the predators following the white tail flag run to the left (toward the tail) while the deer is already turning to the right.  Confused, the predator loses a few steps with each turn.

The deer grazed for a half hour or so. ¬†We watched them from inside the cabin, enjoying every twitch and head tilt. ¬†With any luck, they’ll come back tomorrow.

And that’s 10 minutes on this common 10 mammal. ¬†Check out two other mammals that make the list: ¬†the black bear and the skunk.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Mixing it up among Common 10 lists, as promised (but with an unexpected,¬† fun segue), we’re going from yesterday’s stinky skunks to the species I blindly pulled from the Common 10 prompt box today:¬† stink bugs.

Stink bugs have made their way onto the Common !0 Insects list for the New River Valley, and most of us wish they hadn’t.

Brown_marmorated_stink_bug_adult

This is the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) adult. It’s weird to see just one, isn’t it?¬† Photo provided by David R. Lance, USDA APHIS via Wikimedia Commons.

The brown marmorated stink bug – A.K.A. the BMSB – (Halyomorpha halys) is an invader from Asia.¬† Accidentally brought here in the mid 1990s, the BMSB population has exploded because this area’s climate and ecology are remarkably similar to east Asia (many of our non-native, invasive species come from Asia, e.g. the hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer beetle, Japanese honeysuckle, kudzu vine, tree of heaven, and many, many more) and because none of the BSMB’s natural predators live here.

They gather on warm, sun drenched exterior walls in autumn by the dozens or hundreds, and as temperatures drop, they find little nooks and crannies through which to work their way inside walls or even into a home’s interior.¬† They will spend all winter in these warm refuges.¬† I have had neighbors and friends complain of finding hundreds loitering around sunny windows.

And did I mention that they stink?  You know s species really smells bad when they put stink right there in the name.

Everyone has a different level of sensitivity to the BSMB’s smell.¬† They don’t bother me much as long as they’re out of doors and unmolested, but I’ve never had them gather inside my house, so I may be being unrealistically generous about it.

The stink they emit is actually a chemical compound used for self defense.  They emit this vile compound from holes in their abdomen in order to make themselves smell highly unappetizing to any would-be predators.

When poked or, heaven help us, squished, they release a load of this foul chemical brew and the stench could knock a buzzard off an outhouse.

I experienced this rank odor in full during Master Naturalist training.¬† We were learning about insects (3 bodyparts, 6 legs, antennae, wings, exoskeleton) in an entomology lab at Virginia Tech and one of the already certified naturalists brought dead stink bugs in for us to explore and dissect.¬† (I’m only now realizing that this may have been hazing.¬† Cheeky!)

Thirty trainees picking apart stink bugs under macro scope for at least a half hour.¬† Thank goodness the lab door was left open (small¬† mercies) or I’m certain that I would have a) vomitted or b) passed out.

If you’re visited by unwanted stink bugs in your home this winter, I suggest removing them by sucking them into a handheld vacuum or one with a hose.¬† Then, either throw the bag away immediately inside of a sealed trash bag or, if it’s bagless, dump the contents of the vacuum’s plastic container into a plastic grocery bag that you can knot up tight or completely seal before putting it in the outside garbage bin.¬† Releasing unconstrained BMSBs outdoors gives them an opportunity to find their way back inside – a challenge they’ll meet with ease.

Do I feel bad about advising the mass slaughter of these invaders?¬†¬† A little, but they don’t belong here and they’re throwing our native species off balance.¬† (Here’s a guide to telling the BSMB apart from its native look-alike bugs.)¬† The only good thing you can say about them, in fact, is that at least they don’t sting or bite.¬† They’re a real pest in orchards though, destroying fruit by the acre.

So, for the sake of the fruit and to save all our noses, go get your vacuum and suck the little stinkers up!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Skunks (Common 10 Mammals)

The skunk checks off a box on two of my Common 10 lists; it’s one of the most common mammals in this part of the Appalachians as well as one of the most common nocturnal animals in the area.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, just one type of skunk lives in this area of Virginia, the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).

Striped_Skunk_Big_Bend_NP

Unsurprisingly, there were very few images of the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) available on my free photo source, Wikimedia Commons. Where there were dozens and dozens of black bear photos for my last 10 minute/Common 10 post, there were only about 15 skunk photos. That says something about humans’ fears: apparently skunk funk outranks bear mauling! This photo was provided by Diotime1 via Wikimedia Commons.

The striped skunk usually gets all the press, and rarely is any of it good.¬† The truth is, though, that skunks are a positive part of our environment and, especially if you’re a lawn lover, they can even be a good friend to a suburban yard.¬† (Not to a suburban dog, though – and we’ll get to that in a a minute.)

Back to a reason to love a skunk:¬† skunks love grubs!¬† Grubs, the larval stage of the June beetle, spend their youth munching on the roots of plants, particularly enjoying the roots of your nice green lawn.¬† Skunks, in turn, enjoy digging small depressions in order to find themselves a grub snack.¬† Grubs are their grub!¬† (Classic nature nerd joke.¬† Why don’t I hear you laughing?)

Before digging holes in your lawn, though, grubs will help reduce your yard’s grub population by getting the easy-to-dig grubs out of your mulched flower beds.¬† This helps aerate and turn over the soil and does the garden plants not one iota of damage, as far as I can tell.

In the wild, skunks feed on insects in the leaf litter of the forest or the rich soil beneath a meadow, not to mention berries and fruits, and ground nesting birds and their eggs.

Yes, they do spray the most ungodly stink, but only as a defense mechanism, and only after fair warning.

Skunk’s Fair Warnings:

  1. ‘Mephitis” comes from the Latin for foul odor or stench emanating from the earth and is associated with the demon devil Mephistopheles, so even the animal’s scientific name lets you know that its stink is worse than a devil’s fart.
  2. For those animals that can’t read, the high contrast coloration of the skunk’s black and white patterned fur is a warning of poison or foulness within.¬† In diurnal animals, bright colored patterns such as red and black (ladybug), yellow and black (monarch caterpillar), or red, yellow, and black (coral snake) warn potential predators away.¬† Since bright colors don’t show up well at night, nocturnal animals stick to classic black and white as their warning signs.
  3. When it feels threatened, a skunk will back up and begin to stomp its front feet at you.  This is your clue to calmly and quickly remove yourself from its general area.
  4. If the stomping doesn’t scare you off (you giant, scary predator) the skunk will then begin to lift its back feet off the ground and assume a handstand position.¬† At this point you’d better multitask:¬† run and pray at the same time.
  5. From the handstand position, the skunk will bend until its hind end is pointed directly at your face.  I hope you never have to look down the barrel of that stinking gun because, odds are, no one will want to look at or smell you for weeks afterward.

More often than a human target, though, it’s a pet dog that gets skunked.¬† There are many purported remedies to help counter the malodorous sulfur compounds in skunk spray, from tomato juice to vinegar, baking soda, and even specialty enzyme washes.¬† If your dog is skunked, you’re likely to try them all – please remember to use products that will be gentle to the dog’s skin.

Better yet, avoid the problem all together:¬† don’t let the dogs out at night if you know there are skunks in the area.¬† Skunks are slow, plodding creatures, and a bounding dog will likely catch the skunk and get sprayed before the skunk can get away.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)