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

Recent Bird Sightings

I was lucky enough to see a Fisher and an Eastern Wild Turkey gobbler this evening, but have no photos to prove it! Instead, I’ll share photos of random bird sightings from the past week, all species that were covered in earlier posts.

The Eastern Bluebirds are nesting now, and I usually see them feeding in the morning. In their typical “perch and drop” manner, they land on a woody plant near an opening, usually about 3 to 10 feet above ground, then drop to the ground to snatch an insect.


Eastern Bluebird, male

The Tree Swallows, like the Bluebirds, are now nesting in my custom boxes.


Tree Swallow


I have read about Turkey Vultures adopting a residential lifestyle, but until this past week had not observed it. On the western edge of our one-stoplight village is a small stream, field, large Black Willow trees, and a dead-end road with a few houses. A flock of about eight birds has been roosting there, sometimes in the large willows, sometimes on roof tops, and occasionally on one of the large fence posts that frame a garden plot.


Turkey Vultures



My property is generally avoided by wild Turkeys in winter due to deep snow. However, they’re here in the spring breeding and nesting season and I often see them in the summer with their broods, feeding on grasshoppers and other insects. This hen is a wild bird, probably nesting within a few hundred yards of the house, that often forages through the yard around mid-day.


Eastern Wild Turkey



All photos by NB Hunter

Trout Lily

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum; also called Adder’s Tongue, Dogtooth Violet) is a common, widespread wildflower that blooms in early spring. I find it growing on a wide variety of sites, including rich woodlands, forest edges and old, abandoned pastureland succeeding to woody plants.


Viewed closely when the lighting and background are just right, the nodding yellow flowers with reflexed petals are a beautiful woodland sight. A pair of mottled leaves, somewhat resembling the dorsal coloring of a Brook Trout, are prominent at the base of the flower stalk. Trout Lily is colony-forming and it is not unusual to find dozens of crowded plants in a small area, devoid of flowers. I can’t explain this phenomenon completely, but the lack of flowers is reportedly a function of crowding, plant age, site quality and/or browsing by herbivores.






All photos by NB Hunter

Small, Flowering Trees in the Landscape: Serviceberry

Small trees with showy flowers are a special part of the spring landscape, treasured by naturalists, backyard enthusiasts and landscape professionals alike. Native species like Eastern Redbud (Cercis), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus) and Serviceberry (Amelanchier; Juneberry, Shadbush) are popular, early bloomers, as are the exotic Star and Saucer Magnolias (Magnolia). My focus in this post is the native plants, specifically  Serviceberry.


Flowering Dogwood

Until recently, this locale was classified as Hardiness Zone 4 (minimum winter temperature reaching minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit). At these temperatures, the flower buds of Flowering Dogwood and Redbud freeze, but Serviceberry is unaffected. For a period of a week or so in late April or early May woodlands and forest edges are dotted with blooming Serviceberries, their vivid white flowers contrasting sharply with the brown, gray and pale green colors of the spring landscape.


There are many species and cultivars of Serviceberry, including shrubby and small tree forms, and they’re not always easy to distinguish. The species that I’ve photographed is a small, native tree that I find very appealing.


Serviceberry tree in full bloom in early May; this tree is fairly old and has reached a maximum size of about 8 inches in diameter and 25 feet in height

Serviceberry in full bloom (4):





The fact that Serviceberry thrives in this area and yields a delicious, blueberry-like fruit has led me to consider purchasing plants for my garden.  A cultivar of Saskatoon Serviceberry, grown for commercial fruit production in Canada and elsewhere, has been recommended. I plan to follow up on this, knowing that the Robins, Cedar Waxwings and other songbirds will likely beat me to the crop.

All photos by NB Hunter