Hummers 2020

The most interesting and frequent visitors to our backyard feeders and flowers in the summer are hummers – two very different kinds of hummers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I’ve been negligent in landscaping for hummingbirds so most of my observations and photos center on a sugar-water feeder and adjacent perches.

Diurnal moths. Phlox is one garden flower that thrives despite my neglect. It reaches full bloom in August and another “hummer” visits almost immediately: the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. They buzz around like miniature hummingbirds, feeding on dozens of flowers in the time it takes to lock in on one. Mid to late afternoon is prime time.

Touch-me-not (Jewelweed), a native wild flower, is now in bloom. It’s sought after and guarded by hummingbirds and, with a lot of luck, might lead to a followup post on hummers!

Photos by NB Hunter (July and August, 2020). © All rights reserved.

 

Summer Thrills and Musings

In the midst of an oppressive heat wave with high humidity, even a trip to the extensive, unbroken forests of the Allegheny Mountains offered little reprieve. Cold, freestone streams remained cold, but the waters were low and the trout sluggish. A good rain would bring them out from their hiding places but it wasn’t to be!

Sunrise over the forested ridges and fog-laden valleys of the Allegheny Mountains

A freestone trout stream, protected from the summer heat by the canopy of a forested watershed

My attention quickly shifted to a world where heat and humidity were a blessing: wild flowers and butterflies. The trees and shrubs of deciduous forests provide a smorgasbord of host plants for the caterpillars of many butterfly species and the adults are apt to swarm floral blooms for nectar. Swallowtails are the main attraction.

Tiger Swallowtails on milkweed

Bee Balm (Oswego Tea; Monarda), escaped into wild places from cultivation and a favorite food source of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Spicebush Swallowtail on Bee Balm

The white variety of native Rhododendron, in full bloom in early July on a moist, shaded site near a mountain stream.

The limiting weather and stream conditions in the mountains led me to break  camp early and return to the comforts of home and the rich, natural world that I know so well. Summer is a time when everyone seems to let their guard down as they go about the business of nurturing young and foraging on Nature’s bounty.

Red Fox pups frolicking in a hay field and playing keep-away with food (1 of 2 images).

The resident groundhog (woodchuck) foraging on dandelion leaves.

A “bachelor group” of whitetail bucks in velvet, heading for a field of corn.

July is our peak butterfly month and they have no interest in the “golden hour”. Mid day is their time to flutter. Depending on the species, the goal might be flower nectar, tree sap or minerals in a carcass or mud puddle!

Sulphur butterflies “puddling” in the mud on a nature trail.

Photos by NB Hunter (July, 2020). © All rights reserved.

June: Something for Everyone!

The month of June bridges seasons and showcases the best of two worlds – Spring and Summer. There’s a surprise around every turn that appeals to our senses of beauty and wonder and connects us to the natural world.

My journey through this wonderful month always begins with a camping trip to the Deep Valleys Section of the Allegheny Plateau. An annual renewal of mind, body and spirit begins in this place, where largely forested watersheds and deep, shaded valleys spawn cold springs and freestone streams and a delicious sense of wildness.

Pink Mountain Azalea usually greets us on the approach to our destination.

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul” – John Muir

Unspoiled, forested watersheds – a threatened natural resource to be sure – support diverse aquatic ecosystems that include mayflies and the wild trout that devour them. In these settings, catch and release fly fishing provides Zen-like experiences where one is completely absorbed in the moment.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in” – Henry David Thoreau

The appeal of small, mountain streams is much more than the drag-free drift of a dry fly and the explosion of a fooled trout. The sights and sounds that envelop and animate these environments enrich and complete the overall experience.

Great Blue Heron foraging in a wetland habitat

A Fisher, our largest member of the weasel family, hunting squirrels in the early morning hours

Upon returning home, I’m still surrounded by the myriad wild things and events that make June so special. But, there’s also a backdrop of civilization and the constant reminder of its profound impact on the natural world.

A Catbird guarding her nest in a nearby thicket.

Tree Swallow at the entrance to her nest, guarding the helpless babies

A young Cottontail from the first litter of the year, looking all grown up

Cultivated farm fields bustle with activity in June. Fields of corn, hay and oats dominate the landscape and animals adapt quickly to the cycles of planting, growth and harvesting.

A whitetail family group foraging in a hay field. The fawns are no more than three weeks old and facing the steep learning curve that is critical for their survival.

A mature doe in uncut hay; her fawns are invisible in the tall grass.

Young animals are vulnerable to the operation of big farm machinery in fields, as well as predation and other mortality factors. However, A carcass in a recently cut hay field doesn’t go to waste. In this instance, several crows and an immature Bald Eagle made sure of that.

We met, eye to eye, on a recent summer evening. While walking along the edge of a developing corn field to set up for pictures, I surprised two antlered bucks munching on the succulent new growth of corn stalks. A mature whitetail buck in velvet is a beautiful thing!

“An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity, but great fulfillment.” – David Attenborough

Photos by NB Hunter (June 1 – June 28, 2020). © All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Winged Highlights from Spring, 2020

Wildlife watching around the house and on local trails has occupied much of my free time this spring. The backyard has been an aviary, with an unprecedented variety and abundance of birds visiting feeders and, now, nesting in adjacent habitats.

I’m posting images in chronological order to illustrate the weather roller coaster and subsequent environmental responses during the last two months of this unusual spring season.

16April2020. While sitting in a ground blind hoping to photograph a turkey that was gobbling earlier in the morning, a male bluebird burst onto the scene. Despite the snow and cold, he appeared to be evaluating nest boxes and thinking ahead to nicer weather! In May, a pair of bluebirds did, in fact, build a nest in one of the boxes, only to abandon it and disappear when yet another spring snowstorm blew through.

29April2020. Spring events, including the arrival of red-winged blackbirds and the bloom of shrubby willows, were about two weeks late this year. After several attempts, I was pleased to capture both the bird and blooms in the same frame. The territorial song and breeding display of the redwing is a sure sign of spring and something we all look forward to. “The redwings have arrived!”.

30April2020. Record numbers of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were seen at feeders this spring. Unmistakable in a splash of bold and vivid colors, they quickly became the main attraction and the talk of the town!

10May2020. As their numbers increase around the country, eagles must adapt to human activity in order to capitalize on suitable habitats and food sources near people. This adult just left its nest in a residential area to hunt for fish and waterfowl in local reservoirs and road-killed animals in agricultural areas.

12May2020. Dozens of Goldfinches swarmed the neighborhood tube feeders for weeks this spring, to the point that Niger seed disappeared from store shelves. The birds far outnumbered the available feeding platforms on my modest feeder, leading to chaos and frequent displays of aggression.

13May2020. All seems right with the world when Tree Swallows arrive to claim nest boxes and showcase their magical flight maneuvers as they pursue air-borne insects. They’re most cooperative and photogenic on bright, chilly mornings when they’re apt to perch and preen in the sun. before take-off.

19May2020. Baltimore Orioles exploded onto the scene in May, dazzling with their vivid plumage and beautiful song. It wasn’t long before they received a red carpet welcome of sliced oranges, dishes of jelly and sugar water (in hummingbird feeders).

30May2020.

20May2020. Indigo Buntings, erratic visitors to feeders, are fairly small songbirds that are easily overlooked when moving about in the shadows and dense foliage of thickets. Due to widespread and lingering appearance at feeders this year, everyone now knows and appreciates Indigo Buntings! Their unique coloration is mesmerizing.

9June2020. For several years now, a pair of House Wrens has occupied a nest box on my garden fence. Their musical talents and voracious appetite for bugs more than compensate for their drab plumage. The garden experience wouldn’t be the same without them.

12June2020. The garden pests have more than a family of wrens to worry about. A pair of cute little tail-bobbing phoebes are nesting on a rafter in the open wood shed, not far from the wrens. They too are feasting on insects throughout the day….I think there’s enough to go around.

13June2020. Caught in an awkward preening position, this feisty male hummer guards the sugar-water feeder early in the morning and again late in the evening. His head is on a swivel as he diligently searches for another male invading his territory. The light is rarely adequate for a sharp image, but sometimes the scene trumps quality!

Photos by NB Hunter (April 10 – June 13, 2020). © All rights reserved.

 

 

Wild Turkeys Foraging in Snow

Late winter is a time when the terms “wildlife carrying capacity” and “limiting environmental factors” are defined and illustrated. It is a time when populations of resident wildlife species, those that remain active through winter, reach an annual low.This is especially true in the North where accumulating snow cover limits mobility and access to dwindling food supplies.

Flocks of wild turkeys, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, are sometimes seen foraging in open areas adjacent to evergreen cover at this time of year. Cultivated farm fields, southern exposures and spring-fed wetlands are favorite habitats. I’ve had an opportunity to observe a small flock of turkeys, a “bachelor” group of toms or gobblers, for several weeks and will share some highlights.

These birds move into the stubble of a harvested corn field every afternoon, when  bright sunlight warms and softens crusted snow. Turkeys will feed on the persistent fruit of small trees and shrubs but they’re big, bulky birds and not built for that. They prefer to scratch and dig for food on the ground. In this case, the food of choice is waste grain.

Repeated scratching and digging exposes bare ground and small feeding sites. Occasionally, activity at a feeding site draws the attention of a nearby bird and he’ll run over to get in on the action. At this point the feeding behavior appears to be cooperative, with little aggression or fighting.

It won’t be long before these gobblers disperse to stake out breeding territories and locate hens. But, for now, the priority is winter survival.

Photos by NB Hunter (February, 2020). © All rights reserved.

 

Muskrats on Ice, 2020

Central New York is blessed with abundant wetland habitats, many of them readily accessible by secondary roads and walking trails. In Winter, when above -average temperatures prevail, muskrats can often be seen foraging and moving about in ice-free water. They use open water to access feeding and resting platforms on adjacent ice after diving for plant food. In marsh habitats, cattail stalks and roots are preferred foods.

 

Recently, I watched a pair of muskrats harvest cattail stalks and cache them on a feeding platform positioned on ice and partially submerged, woody debris. They alternately fed, groomed and rested at the site for several days.

The open water and visible muskrat activity disappeared at this wetland with the arrival of freezing temperatures and 20 inches of snow. I was forced to complete my story at another wetland, one where spring-fed water kept the ice at bay.

This solitary muskrat foraged aggressively for at least half an hour, repeatedly submersing it’s head in the shallow pool of swamp water to remove subsurface plant material. It would surface with a mouthful, eat, then go down again for more.

In about a month, males will be chasing females and pairs will be defending their breeding territories: muskrat breeding season! I’m hoping for a follow-up story.

Photos by NB Hunter (January and February, 2020). All rights reserved.

Bird Feeder Survey, Central New York in Jan. 2020

I enjoy photographing wildlife visitors to our feeders, especially when there is snow in the air! These are some of the birds that brighten our winter days on a regular basis.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Northern Cardinal, female

Northern Cardinal, male

Goldfinch, in non-breeding plumage

Blue Jay, opening a sunflower seed

Tufted Titmouse

White-throated Sparrow

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove, one of about 20 fluttering in to feed on the ground

Photos by NB Hunter (January, 2020). © All rights reserved.