Nest-building Songbirds

In an earlier post (Habitat Management for Songbirds, 4/21/13) I covered the use of artificial nest boxes by cavity-nesting birds. As an update to that, about a dozen boxes are now occupied and most Tree Swallows, Bluebirds and House Wrens are on nests.

However, I first heard the Great Crested Flycatcher just a week ago and yesterday had an opportunity to watch as one brought small bundles of pine straw (shed White Pine needles on the ground) to a nest box. Curiously, of the many boxes distributed over several acres, this same site is chosen year in and year out by the flycatchers.



I also discovered that a pair of House Wrens, perhaps late arrivals, had claimed an empty box in a thicket  near the edge of the yard.


Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.


Northern White Cedar Swamps, Late May

Northern White-cedar swamps are one of the most interesting natural resources that I’ve explored in northeastern U.S. I’m fortunate to live near two in central New York, one about 1500 acres and largely State-owned, the other about 700 acres. Both are federally protected wetlands. These sites are low and poorly drained, with saturated soils that are fed and enriched by springs and mineral-rich groundwater. Wet, organic muck soils, downed trees in various stages of decomposition and scattered hummocks characterize the forest floor. Northern White Cedar is the dominant tree. Common associates include Red Maple, Tamarack, Balsam Fir, Black Ash, Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch and White Pine trees.


Forest understory site in a protected Northern White Cedar swamp


Large wetlands like these are mysterious, pristine, biologically rich places that afford unique opportunities for observing and photographing nature through the seasons. I usually hike into a cedar swamp looking for something in particular, perhaps an orchid in bloom, but end up on a “discovery walk”, investigating everything that catches my eye, ranging from fungi to rotting logs and ancient White Pines.


Old growth White Pine tree (double-stem), hundreds of years old, growing on a hummock


Goldthread (Coptis), a common wildflower in cedar swamps

My knowledge of non-flowering plants – fungi, ferns, etc. – is not nearly as impressive as my reference library, so in many cases I leave those images unlabeled.


Mushroom; Wild Lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum) leaf in front


Royal Fern (Osmunda) fiddlehead


Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema)


Horsetail (Equisetum)



Fern fiddleheads


Bracket fungus (1 of 2)



Photos by NB Hunter   ©All Rights Reserved

Baltimore (Northern) Oriole

Most woody plants are now leafed out, making it more difficult to observe and photograph birds. This male Baltimore Oriole was singing, preening  and foraging high in a Silver Maple tree that is sporting fresh, new foliage. At maturity, this tree species is large, with multiple, wide-spreading limbs and slender, drooping branches. It’s the type of tree that a Baltimore Oriole prefers for building its nest, a neatly woven structure suspended from the tip of a branch.

The Peterson Field Guide to Birds refers to the song as “rich, piping whistles”; it’s lovely.



Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved

A Little Woodland Gem: Gaywings

On a recent nature walk I stumbled into a colony of tiny woodland wildflowers, a species that follows the early spring ephemerals but rivals or even exceeds them in beauty. It belongs to the Milkwort family and goes by various common names: Gaywings, Fringed Polygala, Flowering Wintergreen and Bird-on-the-wing. The last refers to the shape of the magenta-colored flower – a pair of sepals flaring out like wings from a tube-like center (fused petals).



This small, fragile, wildflower prefers mesic, acidic soils, sparse herbaceous competition on the forest floor and a forest canopy of hardwood or mixed hardwood and coniferous trees. The specimens that I photographed must have read the book, because this is precisely the type of habitat where they were growing.


Gaywings is widely distributed in northeastern U.S. It also occurs as far south as the mountains of Georgia and north into Canada.


All photos by NB Hunter

It’s Apple Blossom Time!


Wild apple trees are an integral part of our landscape and have my attention throughout most of the year. Naturalized in the wild from the cultivated, domestic apple, they are found just about everywhere there is sufficient light – forest edges, abandoned fields, old farm sites, roadsides and lawns. Wild apple trees are prized for their contributions to the landscape and wildlife habitat. I follow the bloom in mid-May and have spent hours watching deer, cottontail rabbits, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse and squirrels feast on apples or apple seeds in late summer, fall and winter. Naturalized trees originating from seed are a diverse group, with many varieties that show significant differences in blooming and fruiting habits. One wild tree, which I have grafted for wildlife habitat plantings, has a hard, green, sour fruit that is very persistent. Several years ago I watched several wild turkeys feeding on the rotten, partially frozen apples, still on the tree in early March.


A wild apple tree in an agricultural area

Insects too are part of the story, especially at apple blossom time. Many species of bees, wasps, butterflies and other invertebrates work the flowers for their nectar. Migrating songbirds may, in turn, be seen foraging among the flowers, feeding on the insect pollinators.


A butterfly (one of the “Blues”) on an apple blossom


Blue-winged Warbler in a wild apple tree

In a naturalist’s world, non-native plants rarely receive the attention and praise given the wild apple trees. Although the Crabapple is the only apple tree native to the U.S., the domestic apple and its wild relatives have been established in the U.S. for three and a half centuries, perhaps earning the right to be treated as a native! Originally from Central Asia, the domestic apple was cultivated for hundreds of years in Europe and Asia before European colonists brought plants to the New World in the 17th century. An American Folk hero, John Chapman (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) helped establish the domestic apple as a household word and dietary staple in pioneer culture. Circa 1800, he was walking, preaching and planting his way around Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere in the frontier. He established apple orchards from seed collected at cider mills and even revisited the plots to insure survival. Since he didn’t use grafted trees, his apples were reportedly hard and sour, characteristics that pioneers favored for the making of hard cider!


A commercial orchard of Domestic Apple trees, intensively pruned and managed

The wild apple tree bloom was lost to frost in 2012. This year I was determined to track and capture the bloom, come hell or high water. The first flower buds opened about a week ago and now the bloom is peaking and as beautiful as ever (16May2013).  Four days ago I was certain 2013 would be a repeat of 2012. Snow flurries, a mild frost, rain, overcast skies and gusty winds, in that order, threatened to ravage the bloom, the insect pollinators that ultimately make it successful, and my attempts to capture some good images  Incredibly, everything seems OK, and I got my photos. Aside from the one photo of a commercial apple orchard, all images are from wild apple trees in natural settings.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.


Mother’s Day Treat: Grosbeaks

Talking about favorites in the natural world is a bit like asking a parent to name a favorite child. However, if pressed to say which backyard songbird I enjoy seeing and photographing the most, my answer might be the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.


We’ve seen them for a few days at the feeders, this year and last, but have gone years with no backyard sightings. We’re well within their summer breeding range and have suitable second-growth woodland and forest edge habitats locally, but I don’t know if these birds are residents or on their way to points north in the US or Canada.

I have yet to capture really good images of the female, so will feature the male in this post.






All photos by NB Hunter

Finch Metamorphosis

The male Goldfinches are brilliant yellow now in their breeding plumage, an amazing transformation from the drab, gray and gray-olive colors of both the males and females in the winter. When I was young we called them “Wild Canaries”.


They like brushy, weedy fields, where they’ll nest later in the summer when seeds are available. Now, with their conspicuous coloration and undulating flight pattern, they’re easily spotting in these habitats.

These photos were taken in early spring, at a thistle seed feeder. Except for a Pine Siskin in the background in the fourth photo, all are Goldfinches.






All photos by NB Hunter