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!”

640px-Carolina_Chickadee1_by_Dan_Pancamo

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.

1024px-Black-capped_Chickadee_in_the_Rain

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)

 

 

 

 

Boo Hoot Hoot

I blew it.

Yesterday was my owling-with-experts opportunity and, despite my best intentions, I totally blew it.

I was so prepared.  I had layers upon layers of clothes all laid out the night before, my thermoses ready to fill with hot coffee, and even got myself to sleep before midnight with my alarm set for 4:45 a.m. – plenty of time to get dressed and drive to the meeting spot in Christiansburg by 5:20 a.m., the appointed meeting time.

And at 4:45 a.m., I hit the snooze button.  Apparently, I also hit it at 4:54 a.m., 5:03 a.m., and 5:12 a.m..

I woke with a start at 5:17 a.m. – panic!

I immediately sent a bleary-eyed email to my Christmas Bird Count circle coordinator:  “Overslept!  Be there ASSAP!”

The misspelling of ASAP could have been just a typo, but I think it’s more Freudian than that – I truly felt like a jackass.

I dressed and brushed and brewed at lightning speed (accidentally waking my daughter with my heavy, booted footsteps in the process – I kissed her head and sent her to take the warm spot I’d left in my bed), gathered my things and rushed to the car.  I paused only long enough to let my eyes adjust to the dark of a moonless morning, which was necessary to prevent me from falling down my own front steps.

I wasn’t fast enough, though – I didn’t arrive at the meeting spot until 5:42 a.m., 22 minutes late.  There was no one there.  I didn’t blame them – you don’t stand around waiting in 23 degree weather, you get going.  They had gotten gone.

I was crestfallen.  I made two calls to see if I could get in touch with someone who knew where they’d gone, but the numbers I could find were all home phones and I could only leave messages.

I was home and asleep almost exactly an hour after I’d woken up.

When I woke again hours later and well after sunup, I was still a little sad, but I’m talking myself out of it.

That’s the thing about nature – there are always going to be missed opportunities.  Whether it’s not being quick enough with the camera to capture the critter you see or having two weeks of rain squelch any hiking plans at the beak of autumn colors or being too friendly with the snooze button – there are always going to be plenty of missed moments.

The only way to keep your chin up is to know that, at least where nature is concerned, the season will roll around again, and the next opportunity may be different, but it will come.

I will see an owl this year, as I said in my previous post . . . just maybe not this calendar year.  But I’ve got 366 days (leap year!) and a whole lap around the sun to make it happen.

New opportunities are always just around the bend.  Nature is just cool like that.

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.

EasternScreechOwlBillWaller

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!

800px-Eastern_Screech_Owl

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.

Megascops_asio_Kerrville_2

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!

Deerfield Trail – Early Autumn.

The Deerfield Trail is a small wonder of the New River Valley nature scene.

A good friend of mine tipped me off to its existence early this spring, when she and her family walked the trail at dusk in order to hear the woodcocks “peenting” their mating song.

I didn’t get out there fast enough (or at the right time of evening) to catch the woodcocks’ serenade, but I have walked the trail several times this spring and summer and, most recently, last week, so it’s one I can highly recommend, particularly for families with young children.

This was the scene from the trailhead.  Note the large pine tree on the left; it's gorgeous but it's a mystery I still need to solve.  It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones.  That doesn't fit what I can find in my books and on line.  I guess I'll just have to take another walk soon.

This was the scene from the trailhead. Note the large pine tree on the left; it’s gorgeous but it’s a mystery I still need to solve. It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones. That doesn’t fit what I can find in my books and on line. I guess I’ll just have to take another walk soon.

Here are the Deerfield Trail’s highlights:

  • It’s only a five minute drive off of Route 460 via Tom’s Creek Road.
  • There’s plenty of parking.
  • The entire trail is both wide and paved; less tripping hazard for little feet and thoroughly stroller-friendly.
  • It’s only .7 miles long, one way, and there’s very little incline.
  • Around the half mile mark, there’s a wonderful grassy area complete with big, shady sycamore trees and at least two benches, right on the banks of Tom’s Creek.
  • This area of Tom’s Creek (as long as it’s not raining upstream) is nice and shallow, perfect for exploring and splashing.
  • In addition to the creek, this trail also features open meadow and woodland habitats, and more habitats means a greater variety of species to see.
  • Wildlife I’ve seen on this trail include:
    • Songbirds (cardinals, blue jays, Eastern towhees, robins, etc.)
    • Woodpeckers
    • Great Blue Heron
    • Canada Geese
    • Mink (playing in the farm pond)
    • Squirrels
    • Chipmunks
  • Speaking of wildlife, dogs are welcome as long as they’re on leash.
  • This trail has lots of great interpretive signage, too, provided by a local Girl Scout troop when the trail was first built and designed to encourage visitors to use all of their senses to experience nature along the way.  Easy reading for elementary students, these signs are full of wonderful information.
Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  The blossoms are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops.  They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax.  So cool.

Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). The blossoms themselves are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops. They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. So cool.

During my walk last week I enjoyed watching the progression of fall on the trail.  Palest purple asters (Aster spp.) and bright gold wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) were both in bloom, as well as a few goldenrod and some surprising pink gaura (Gaura spp.).  The blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace were just finishing their bloom, browning, and curving upward and inward, sort of like an umbrella that’s been blown inside out.

It's my contention that there aren't enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren't cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name:  pale aster - a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

It’s my contention that there aren’t enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren’t cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name: pale aster – a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

The black walnut trees along the trail had dropped plenty of baseball-sized, bright green fruit on the ground.  (Even that hard nut is protected by at least a half inch of dense material inside a tough, leathery husk.)

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer).  This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom's Creek.

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer). This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom’s Creek.  In the foreground, a bluebird box is being nicely camouflaged by this season’s now-leafless growth of vines.

As the trail crossed Tom’s Creek, I saw the evidence of the recent floods:  grass and wildflowers still flattened in the direction of the floodwaters, bent permanently by the sheer force of the rush.  The banks of the creek were obviously significantly eroded, scrubbed sheer and concave by the power of so much water headed down even this gentle slope.  There’s a lot of impermeable surface – pavement, roofs, sidewalks, etc. – in the Tom’s Creek watershed, so even a moderate rain can generate a fairly large flash flood.

This photo shows Tom's Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail.  Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily eroded by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

This photo shows Tom’s Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail. Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily scoured by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

Then, following the trail into the woods, my footsteps became noisy as I crunched through drifts of fallen leaves.  It was my first autumn leaf shuffle, and in some spots the leaf litter was deep enough to kick, Rockettes-style, into the air.  Which, of course, I did, because I had the trail all to myself.  Well, I was away from other humans, at least; there were plenty of obvious animal trails visible in the thinning undergrowth and lots of skittering and rustling in my peripheral vision.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves.  It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though.  Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves. It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though. Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

The great thing about a straight (non-loop) trail is that, if you pay attention, you see lots of things on the way out that you missed on the way in.  Here are some more great autumn wildflowers that caught my eye:

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted  Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at  stream edges.

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at stream edges.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail.  It's my second nomination for a new shade of purple.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail. It’s my second nomination for a new shade of purple.  Check out the little yellow and black fly coming in for a landing at nine o’clock.  Many small flies have found success in the natural selection game because their coloring resembles that of bees and, thus, predators think twice before eating them.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa).  It's a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe.  So widely has it spread, though, that it's likely here to stay.  Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o'clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower's nectar and pollen.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa). It’s a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe. So widely has it spread, though, that it’s likely here to stay. Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o’clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower’s nectar and pollen.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside.  These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they've all come true.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside. These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I called them “fairy seeds” and believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they’ve all come true.

As I inserted these last pictures into the post, an overall takeaway occurred to me:  the most noted wildflowers and seedheads of early fall are (generally) members of the Aster family (e.g.: Joe Pye, Aster, Thistle, Goldenrod, Ironweed, and Coreopsis) and the Milkweed family (e.g.: Common Milkweed, Butterflyweed, and Swamp Milkweed).

This is, no doubt, a general rule that should have occurred to me before, but I don’t mind figuring it out again by looking closely at each of these gorgeous flowers and then backing out to the bigger picture.  Just one more reason I love to hike.

To learn a bit more about some of the New River Valley’s other hiking trails, check out my earlier blog posts, Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail and A Walk in the Ellet Valley Recreational Area.

Gardner vs. Naturalist

Well, the sun is back out in Blacksburg and we are almost thoroughly dried from the floods.

The town will begin collecting autumn yard waste tomorrow morning, so I spent a good portion of the afternoon trimming branches and cutting stems of overgrown plants in my yard.

I keep a very beautiful, but very messy garden. I like to plant my perennials so close together that it’s difficult to see the weeds growing up between them.  The only downside to this is that by the end of the season, my busy garden is full of brown seed heads, spent daylily stems, and weeds that I thought were pretty enough to let grow.

Meanwhile, only the asters, mums, and goldenrods are still blooming. The garden is more messy than pretty by a longshot.

And this is when the gardener in my brain wrestles with the naturalist.

Messy gardens are good for wildlife.
I have to repeat that mantra to myself a lot throughout the fall.

These past few weeks, though, the wild world has been helping me out by actually showing up to take advantage of my messy garden.
Here are some pictures of the things that have helped the naturalist and the gardener get along:


This picture shows the pokeweed that has grown huge in my corner garden. I find the fuchsia stems and inky purple berries quite attractive. But, there’s no doubt that most of my neighbors consider this poisonous plant a weed.  And, as the season goes on, the large leaves turn yellow and droop and entirely unattractive manner.  I was on the verge of cutting the whole thing down when I arrived home from a walk and spotted my very first cedar waxwing gorging itself on the berries.  The pokeweed stays.


These are the spiky brown seed heads of my purple coneflowers. The stems and leaves are equally brown and crispy. The gardener in me itches to grab the pruners and remove the unsightly, unverdant lot of them.  But then every morning when I first open our front door, I am treated to the startled flight of a small flock of bright yellow American goldfinches. They wake well before I do and feast on coneflower seeds.  So, if I have to put up with brown in order to get a scattering of gold every morning, the coneflower seed heads stay.


My zinnias didn’t come in well this year.  I think I stored last year’s seeds incorrectly.  Where usually they are a gorgeous green mass of leaves topped by impossibly large flowers that look like fireworks, this year they are leggy and not blooming so well, as you can see in the picture. But, when I am stuck folding laundry, I often look out the window because something has zipped through my peripheral vision and I spot  the ruby-throated hummingbirds that are sipping sweet zinnia nectar to fuel their little bodies over the long migration south.  And, just this last week, Monarch butterflies are using the zinnias has pitstops on their southward migration as well.  The zinnias stay.

The naturalist wins.

No doubt the gardener will get some more trimming done after the first killing frost, but the seed heads will stay until every seed has gone into a goldfinch tummy.
And, in the spring, all the branches and stems that I didn’t get collected by the town’s second fall brush collection and, therefore, are piled in an out of the way corner will make a wonderful hiding spot for a mama Eastern cottontail and her soft, sweet, baby bunnies.

Flushing

No, not that kind of flushing!

What kind of nature writer do you think I am?

Sicko.

I’m talking about flushing birds out of their hiding places among the leafy branches and briar tangles.  Apparently, I’m great at it.  I found this out a few nights ago while taking an evening walk in Heritage Park.

Heritage Park is a former dairy farm, with wide meadows covering its hills, complete with old silos and broken down wooden outbuildings turning silver with age.  There’s a farm pond in the forested upland and the hills,roll down to a wetland floodplain on the side of Tom’s Creek.  In short, every bird habitat you could hope for, all with mown, traveled, or paved trails.

The park is a regular haunt for the local birding club, whose expert members can pick out migrating warblers (tiny, flitting sirens who tease with sweet songs and bright feathers and then disappear behind a single leaf among millions) across a valley, sometimes only by call.  Unfortunately, the birders tend to hit the park to look for birds by 8:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, a time I have permanently reserved each week to spend looking at the backs of my eyelids.

So there I was, on my own (truly – in over an hour, I only saw three other people in the park) and with camera in hand, ready to capture the parks’ natural wonders in the golden hour before dusk.

I failed utterly.

Otherwise, this post would be titled “Fantastic Photos of Heritage Park Birds” and would be filled with said pictures.

Instead, I hope to do the birds I saw a modicum of justice by describing them and finding pictures on line.

Turkey Vulture

A soaring turkey vulture (Coragyps atratus) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms.  Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

A soaring turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms. Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

Vultures often ride the updrafts rising off of the hills in Heritage Park.  I love to visit this park with kids because it gives me an opportunity to teach them e difference between vultures and hawks (hawks rarely soar outside of migration season; they hunt by swooping or diving from a high perch or chasing smaller birds through the forest with stunningly acrobatic flight) and between turkey and black vultures:

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are slightly larger, have red heads like turkeys, and the entire length of their underwings is divided by color, white toward the tail and black toward the head.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are smaller, have black heads, underwings that are black to the wrist, but with white “hands” at the wingtip.  Black vultures also fly with their wings held flat, whereas turkey vultures’ wings are held at an upward angle.

What I saw on that evening was a turkey vulture, but not alone.  The vulture was being chased and harassed by two red-winged blackbirds protecting their nest from the giant soaring intruder.  The vulture seemed more annoyed than concerned, as if the blackbirds were mosquitos buzzing around its ears rather than a real a problem.  A vulture would rather have a nice, stinky carcass for dinner than a plain meal of eggs.

The whole group flew in by me not fifteen feet away, but quickly, and directly in front of the sun.  Had I been quick enough to stop watching and aim the camera, I would have caught a dark blur in a blinding white frame of evening sun.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Indigo Bunting

I had forgotten how blue, and how many blues, the male indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) can be.  They look like a tropical artist used their feathers to paint the ombré of the Caribbean Sea:  turquoise, electric blue, teal, royal, and, yes, indigo.  The birds spend their winters in the islands, Cuba, and Mexico and I can’t help but imagine a scene where the birds paint their own plumage, turning and dipping as they fly low above the warm sea waves, catching color on their wings and tails that spreads like summer tie dye.

The bunting was perched on a tall stalk of grass, and froze as I came around the corner.  I stopped moving immediately and stood to gaze for a few seconds, holding my breath.  I brought my camera up slowly in my right hand, and moved only my eyes to check my hand placement, and when I rolled my eyes back to the subject, the bird was gone.

A brown thrasher holding still.  My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds.  Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

A brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum) holding still. My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds. Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Thrasher

I still remember the first time I saw a brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum), nearly ten years ago now.  I was teaching an environmental summer camp in the Florida panhandle, driving a 15 passenger van full of kids, and the thrasher swooped out from the edge of the forest and back in through a tangle of vines.  I was so excited – a new bird!  (FYI, I kept the van on the road despite the excellent distraction – the campers survived.)

Brown thrashers are so wonderfully not some of the more common birds.  They are the size of a robin, but where the robin’s back is black, the thrasher’s is a rich, milk-chocolate-with-a-hint-of-red-chili-pepper (like a Mexican hot chocolate) brown.  Its tail is long and slender like the mockingbird’s, but curves downward ever so slightly, like a sardonically raised eyebrow.  Its beak is likewise slightly curved downward, like a Carolina wren’s.  As I write, I can’t help thinking that if these three birds were evolutionarily smashed together just right, the resulting Frankenbird would be our beloved brown thrasher.

On this particular evening in Heritage Park, the brown thrasher flew from one tree to another and I caught it out of the corner of my eye – a swoosh of that warm brown, the right size, a glimpse of streaked breast.  Not even a chance of a shot with the camera, but still that sweet, delighted feeling of “I saw my new bird again!”

The northern flicker will give you a "flicker", a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground.  Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) will give you a “flicker”, a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground. Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Flicker

Spotting woodpeckers has never been easy for me.  Well, actually, I can spot them, but the little wiseacres always spot me right back and promptly hop around to the far side of whatever tree they’re on so I can’t get a good look at them.  Even the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) – or it could be a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus), or maybe I get both – that visits my suet feeder in the winter doesn’t stay long enough for positive identification.

But northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are different.  First of all, they’re big – 12 inches from top of the head to tip of the tail (compared to the downy’s diminutive eight inches).  Second, and even better, they feed on the ground a lot, using their beaks to dig for ants and beetles.

The flicker I flushed (ooh, that’s fun to say) had been feeding at the edge of the mown path on the hilltop meadow.  It flapped up to a tree on the other side of the path and, even in the low light of gathering dust, I saw the white patch just above its tail between wing beats.  It’s that white patch flashing that gave the bird it’s name “flicker”.

One of these days I’ll carry my best camera (I call her “Big Girl”) out to the park with me.  I’ll lug the tripod and the telephoto lens, too.  I’ll bring a chair and sit and be patient.

And, even then, I’ll still be distracted in all different directions by flits and flaps and flutters and flushes and photo opportunities missed.  Fortunately, I’m totally okay with that.

Pandapas Pond – Part Two

Wednesday.  I’m in my house and should be sorting laundry or cleaning the kitchen or writing the grocery list.

But I promised a second part to our little trip to Pandapas Pond, and I’m a woman of honor, so I’m going to skip those other things and write about nature instead.

For you.  Because I’m selfless and committed like that.

Now let’s see. . .where were we at the end of part one?  Oh, yes, 2,196 feet high in the Jefferson National Forest, one quarter of the way around man-and-beaver-made Pandapas Pond with the golden evening sun pouring through the trees on the mountainside.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.  I captured this shot in 2013.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.

Five petals and plenty of thorns - you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.  I took this photo in Louisiana in March of 2012; they bloom two months earlier that far south.

Five petals and plenty of thorns – you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.

We walked past blackberry vines in bloom (Rubus allegheniensis, another member of the rose family of plants – five petaled flowers and fruit that follows, just like cherry and crabapple trees and cockspur hawthorn we talked about) and oxeye daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) showing their friendly faces.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas.  This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas. This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

We were drawn across the first bridge of this figure eight shaped pond by something that seemed to have been set aflame by slanted rays of the setting sun, but was, in fact, a flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea or Rhododendron calendulaceum depending on which book you reference) in full bloom, pictured at left.

Though the flowers have little smell and the blossom color can vary from soft yellow to muted red, hummingbirds and other pollinators have no trouble finding this native nectar source.

I’m growing a flame azalea in my back yard next to the deck stairs; I bought it at a local nursery that specializes in native plants.  It’s only about two feet tall right now, but someday it will reach 12 feet, and the bright orange, trumpet shaped flowers will be at eye level as I stand on the deck, which means that the hummingbirds visiting it will be at eye level, too!

More great information and excellent pictures of the flame azalea is available at another excellent blog, Virginia Wildflowers.

I’ve just realized that I’m straying from my usual bold title and underlying description format.  I’ll get back on track for the rest of the post.

Our next stop was the wetland boardwalk (the top of the figure eight, looking back into the wetlands that stretch into woods) where we sat, looked, and listened for almost an hour with birds overhead and fish beneath our feet.  Here are the rest of the highlights from our Sunday nature walk at Pandapas:

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer.  Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer. Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-winged Blackbird

“Conk-ka-reeeee” sang a male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the top of a nearby snag.  There are several dead trees (called “snags”) in the wetland area at the back of Pandapas, and the male was using the closest one as a stage, flashing his scarlet and gold epaulets.  He must have been singing for an all female audience in the nearby woods, because we didn’t see a single female respond.  That didn’t stop the gallant soloist, though, and my dear husband swears he heard a few new trills previously undocumented for the red-winged blackbird.  I doubt that in our family hour we made a minor discovery in wildlife biology, but I heard the different trill, too – a long trill that went up and back down like a shallow bowl turned over – and my interest is piqued!

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo.  This excellent shot was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo. This excellent shot of an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Phoebe

“Oooh, look over there, what’s that little bird?” my daughter asked.  My first answer?  It’s an LBB.

Ahh, the LBBs (Little Black Birds and Little Brown Birds) – they’re hard to distinguish from one another!  I never got close enough to be 100% certain that this was an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) and not an Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), and heaven knows the zoom on my phone was no help (not that I’m bitter), but I got close enough to see the shape, size (about as long as my hand from base of palm to tip of middle finger), and behavior of the bird, so I’m fairly certain I’ve got it right.  The first thing you notice about a phoebe is that it’s a tail wagger, constantly pumping its tail up and down, and this little fellow was definitely wagging.  It was also perched on a low branch near the wetland boardwalk bridge, and phoebes nest under bridges and other overhangs.  The birdy never sang, but it did fly out and fly back to its perch on several insect-snatching sorties.  What this LBB lacks in size it makes up for in speed and maneuverability, which is too bad for the insects, who make up its meals.

This mallard mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas.  I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas. I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery Mallards

As we sat and watched Abbey sally forth up and down the boardwalk, spotting perch and Eastern newts in the tea-brown water, we kept an eye and ear on the field of cattails in the marsh.  And then they moved.  Suddenly.  Not blown by the wind, but by some not-tiny animal moving within them.  We all got excited.  I don’t know about the other two, but as I held my breath I wished for beavers.  Lots and lots of people have seen the beavers at Pandapas, but I haven’t.  Their lodge and dam work is obvious to all, but I’ve yet to spot the furry brown builders themselves.

I didn’t this time, either.  What did come waddling into a clearing was a mama mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and her half dozen ducklings.  And it didn’t matter that they weren’t beavers or that I’ve seen hundreds of them before, my face split into an instinctive grin at the fussing mother and the wandering, wobbling, fuzzy little babies.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade.  This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade. This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m extra glad for the noisy mallards that kept my eyes focused on the cattails because that gave me another gift – the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).  The ruby-throat, as they’re often known, is the only hummingbird that visits us here in the mid-Atlantic region of North America.  I have planted lots of native, hummingbird friendly plants (coral honeysuckle, liatris, wild columbine, bee balm/monarda, and more) and have even hung a hummingbird feeder, so I know they’re out there, but still a sighting is rare.  They’re little green birds – well, if phoebes are little, then these are actually tiny – that dart so quickly through the landscape it’s hard to catch them.  In fact, they’re the only birds that are so maneuverable that they can fly backwards!

I thank my lucky stars that I saw this one, a female, I think, because I didn’t see the ruby throat that indicates a male, because she was gathering cattail fluff to tuck into her nest!  I saw her pluck fluffy seeds from the spent cattail flower stalk, fly to a second stalk, grab even more, and then carry it off in her beak as she flew away to the woods’ edge.  That kind of sighting, well, for a nature nerd like me, it’s enough to make your whole week!

And it did:  I’m still grinning.  But, on the other hand, it’s not going to get the laundry done, so off I go!

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part Two

A whole week has passed?  Good grief.

Well, that’s about right for a mother, actually – we have one glorious, relaxing day in the sun every year . . . but then all of the other days gang up and come at us all at once.

No complaints here, though.  All the time I’ve spent not writing this week was spent outside enjoying amazing weather – blue skies, mountainsides deepening from spring green to emerald green, wild phlox blooming everywhere.

I spent most of the week in the garden, planting native plants and weeding non-native weeds.  (I got an excellent new weeding tool from my folks.  Have I mentioned it yet?  It is awesome!)  By the way, “I only weed the non-natives” is an outstanding excuse for only doing half the weeding a perfectionist gardener might do.  Totally believable.

But I digress.  So now I shall progress by regressing to last Sunday.

I ended my last post as afternoon turned slowly to evening, sitting on the deck with my mother- and father-in-law, our bellies full (the men cooked!) and glasses of cold white wine in hand.  The birds were singing, the light was golden, and all was well with the whole world.  Until, that is, I opened my big, fat mouth about the nearby Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythphthalmus) not singing its song properly.

My in-laws have a great look that crosses their faces (briefly, bless them) when I say things like this; it’s somewhere between “Wow, what amazing knowledge you have!” and “Good lord, what is the crazy nature lady talking about now?!”

The best time to see rufous-sided towhees is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song.  Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

The best time to see Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythryphthalmus) is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song. Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

So I explained, thoroughly sanely, I might add, that the song of the Eastern towhee is “Drink your te-e-e-e-a, sweeeet!” but that the towhees around south Main Street in Blacksburg and, apparently, at this end of Claytor Lake, refuse to sing the  “sweeeet” part.  (Are they on diets?  Are they from the north?  What’s wrong with sweet tea, you stubborn birds?!)

Again, showing only momentarily the “Nope, she’s gone thoroughly nuts” face, my in-laws inquired about what other bird calls I might know.

Here’s the part where I confess that I am only a novice bird watcher and a thoroughly amateur bird listener, but I am learning – thanks mostly to a wonderful book that my own folks bought for my daughter when she was young, Bird Calls by Frank Gallo and Lori Lohstoeter, that I now use often with other kiddos when I teach at the nature center.  It’s an incredibly well done picture and information book, but the best parts are the buttons you can push to hear the songs of each bird that’s been illustrated plus mnemonic phrases to help you remember them.

Here are the bird calls I can say that, thanks to that book and a lot of other research, I feel I know, along with links to the Cornell Ornithology All About Birds website pages where you can actually listen to the calls described.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Why not start with my favorite, right?  When I was born my mother nicknamed me “Dee” and so this bird has been calling my name all my life.  It’s standard call sounds to me like “Chick-a-da deedeedeedee”  See what you think by scrolling down to “Calls” on this webpage:  Carolina chickadee sounds.  Did you remember to scroll down?  I hope so, because the mating song of the chickadee (the first sound file on the page) reveals my heartbreak:  although I’ve loved the chickadee best for decades now, in the spring he stops calling for me.  The chickadee gets a seasonal madness and suddenly falls in love and calls for some woman named Phoebe:  “Fee-beee Fee-bay.”  Homewrecker.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this bird:  from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays.  Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term "dove gray".  Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this mourning dove (Zenaida macroura): from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays. Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term “dove gray”. Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning Dove

Nope, it’s not an owl singing during the day, but the gentle coo of the ubiquitous mourning dove (Zenaida macroura).  The mnemonic I use for this one is really just the sound of the call itself “Ooo, OO OO, ooo ooo ooo,” one rising coo at the start, then two loud coos followed by three softer coos.  It sounds like someone crying from deep emotional or physical pain but, rest assured, these birds are healthy and doing just fine.  I guess their females are just attracted to males that need healing?  I know women like that.  In my opinion, though, the far cooler sound made by morning doves is the loud flappy/whistley noise their wings make when they take off in a hurry (like every time I walk past my bird bath).  It’s on that same web page, have a listen.  The experts think it helps to warn other members of their flock and/or startle predators.  I want to know what it is about the wing that allows it to make that sound, but that’s research for another day.

Cardinal

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder.  Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder. Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are the poster-bird for spring singing.  The impossibly red males flaunt their feathers and their voices, perching high in trees and singing loudly either “Cheer cheer cheer cheer” or “bir-Dee, bir-Dee, bir-Dee.”  (Whoa, maybe I should give them a little love for calling my name, too.)  In the first, the cheer starts on a high note and slurs down to a lower note.  In the latter, the “bir” note is a bit lower and the “Dee” note is higher and louder.  Listen to both songs here.  However, as I am learning, it’s important to get to know the voice of a particular species of bird, rather than just one song.  Ornithologists have recorded over 16 different songs and calls for the cardinal alone and, unlike most species, the female cardinal sings, too.  She may be plain compared to the male (her colors blend in to camouflage the nest she sits on, whereas the male’s plumage is meant to show off to win her heart) but she sings just as sweetly!

It still baffles me that these are so often called "robin redbreast" when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red.  This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

It still baffles me that these are so often called “robin redbreast” when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red. This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

Robin

The American Robin’s (Turdus migratorius) song is as clear and ringing as the cardinal’s, but is even more musical, with many different notes and trills.  The mnemonic for the robin’s song are the words “cheerily” and “cheer up” repeated and interspersed with one another.  For my money, the cheerilies are a little tough to tell from the cheer ups, so I say remember it in any order you like.  Besides, Mother Nature likes to mess with us, so whatever pattern you remember your cheerily cheer ups, just when you think you’ve finally got it down, She’ll throw a robin with a whole different pattern at you.  Listen to the robins here and tell me which order you think they’re putting their words in.  Ha!

PS – What’s up with that scientific name?  If any bird is going to get tagged with “migrating turd” it should be Canada Geese, judging by the guano bombs each flock drops on our cars in spring and fall!

White-throated Sparrow

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow.  The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there's nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short.  The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow. The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there’s nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short. The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

My mother taught me this one, and well she should, her maiden name is Peabody and that’s just what the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) whistles in his highest pitch: “Ooold man  Peab’dy Peab’dy Peab’dy” with the last Peab’dy getting louder and rising up like a sentence that ends with a question mark paired with an exclamation point.  (FYI, that punctuation is called an interrobang – one of my favorite words ever.)  As if the bird is shocked at whatever Old Man Peabody has done.  Perhaps the female birds fly in to get the gossip on whatever that is, then just decide to stay and make a nest and raise a few babies.  For the record, as far as I can tell, my grandfather Peabody was a law abiding man and far too respectable to be the subject of gossip but, then again, I don’t speak bird, so I don’t really know.  Listen to their song here, but be aware that these birds don’t stick to the mnemonic script as well as the ones in Blacksburg do.

Carolina Wren

"Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger" sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

When we were younger, my older brother asked my mother about the cheeseburger bird in our back yard.  My mother, momentarily perplexed (she had no facial expression for “Is he crazy?” like my in-laws do; she already knew her children were certifiable), asked “Cheeseburger bird?”  My brother replied, yeah, the bird that sings “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger cheeseburger.”  And because of that, in my mind, the Carolina wren’s (Thyrothorus ludovicianus) song mnemonic will always and forever be a thrice-repeated “cheeseburger”, despite the fact that ornithologists usually describe it as “teakettle” or “Germany.”  Bah!  My brother’s is more American anyway.  Listen for yourself and decide if they’re singing for a classic American meal, a British standard, or the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions.

Tufted Titmouse

Perhaps he's pausing to look for Peter?  I know this much:  if I'm looking for a great bird photo, I'll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps he’s pausing to look for Peter?
I know this much: if I’m looking for a great bird photo, I’ll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

For a little bird, the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) has a big voice.  He uses it to call for Peter.  The titmouse’s song is a phrase made up of repeated “PE-ter”s, sometimes as few as three, sometimes many more; listen here.  I don’t know who this Peter is, but I hope he’s flattered by the attention of this handsome little bird.

Oh!  Big idea!  Maybe I can find Peter and hook him up with Phoebe . . .

Maybe my in-laws are right about the crazy creeping in.