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.

 

 

Kids Rule!

In the animal world, late spring is all about raising kids and perpetuating the species. Parents (one or both) are driven to feed, guide, teach and protect their offspring, regardless of the conditions or the associated risks. The large number of animals, naive-te of the young and constant activity of the adults opens a window of opportunity for viewing wildlife that is unprecedented in the annual cycle. That said, sightings can still be extremely challenging when dense vegetation and the need to minimize human disturbance are factored into the equation.

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One of several Tree Swallows that dive-bombed me when I got too close to a nest box full of youngsters

I’ve captured a sample of this exciting season, sometimes by design, more often by accident, and will share the joy!

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Canada Geese, mother and goslings, on a small stream

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Young Cottontail Rabbit

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Great Crested Flycatcher with a bug for the kids to fight over; she fed her young dragonflies, moths and caterpillars while I watched

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Immature Red Squirrel (i of 2)

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Wild Turkey hen loudly and aggressively defending a brood too young to run or fly (1 of 2)

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Hen turkey feigning injury and circling at a distant of about 25 meters, attempting to draw me away from her brood (which I didn’t pursue in the dense vegetation)

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White-tailed Deer fawn, about a week old, instinctively laying low and motionless, for better or worse; I was 2 meters away

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Most does are bred in November and give birth in late May and early June; this fawn may be 2-3 weeks old and reaching an age where running to avoid a threat is possible

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Despite the size difference, these fawns are probably twins

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Preflight Ritual

One of a pair of Tree Swallows perched above the chosen nest box; they typically  preen and stretch in the morning sun prior to take-off.

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For information and photos relating to habitat management for tree swallows and other cavity-nesting songbirds, you might want to visit this post from my archives: https://nicksnaturepics.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/h

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Songbirds Raising Kids!

Good wildlife photographers invariably capture spectacular images of the large predatory birds – eagles, osprey, herons and the like – caring for their young. I appreciate great photography but sometimes it drives me crazy! I don’t have those shots! I’m just beginning to tackle the challenge and to date my inventory is limited to the more common songbirds that can be reached with a little stealth, some patience and a modest telephoto lens. To paraphrase John Gierach, my favorite fishing author, when asked why he spends so much time catching small trout on a fly rod: “catching small trout all day long is a lousy job, but somebody’s gotta do it”.

My featured species in this post are the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Images aside, I’ve learned much and laughed often on these shoots and hope others have a similar experience.

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European Starling feeding an insect to one of its young (at least three in all)

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Chipping Sparrow on a garden fence, prepared to feed young birds, invisible in the dense raspberry bushes below

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Adult Grackle about to feed a fledgling with cracked corn gathered from a nearby feeder (1 of 2)

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Fledgling and adult Grackle; the adult has closed its nictitating membrane, an eyelid that lubricates and protects the eye, to prevent injury from the sharp beak of the fledgling as food is inserted into its mouth

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Adult male Baltimore Oriole with an insect morsel for its fledged young below

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Immature Baltimore Oriole

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Adult Catbird about to feed fledged young

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Fledgling Catbird

I’ll finish with the photos that I took this morning. A combination of sun, ground fog and heavy dew got me moving early. I was hoping to see the resident White-tailed Deer fawns, but knew that I’d return with something on my memory card even if they couldn’t be found.

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I usually check nest boxes from a distance while I’m walking and noticed a head sticking out of one that appeared to be a young Tree Swallow. I got comfortable in the tall grass and weeds and watched. The young swallow in the opening – now nearly the size of its parents – appeared to be restless and about to leave the nest. I thought I could see the tip of a second beak at times, evidence that a sibling had the same urge and perhaps was trying to expedite things. I took many photos as the bird moved back and forth in the opening of the box, as though it would decide to go for it, then have second thoughts. A parent was perched 100 feet away and 30 feet up, in the top of a spruce tree, seemingly ignoring all of us.

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Young Tree Swallow about to fledge

After a half hour of deliberation, the youngster chirped and bolted, just like that. In the blink of an eye, it was out and airborne. It hung up and thrashed briefly in the tall grass in front of the box (the last photo), then soared up, up and away. After sitting for days on end in a cramped, stuffy nest box, and having no tutorial or pre-flight orientation, it just flew. What an amazing feat of nature. Oh, as soon as it soared, the parents swooped in to drive me away. I left, but returned an hour later and found an empty box.

As you might have guessed by now, the fledgling caught me off-guard, flew right at me at point-blank range, and the perfect shot will have to wait.

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Fledgling Tree Swallow a few feet from its nest box, airborne for the first time

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

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.

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Eastern Bluebird, male

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

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Tree Swallow

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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.

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Turkey Vultures

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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.

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Eastern Wild Turkey

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All photos by NB Hunter

Habitat Management for Songbirds

The management of habitat for non-game wildlife like songbirds can be very rewarding. My management practices are guided by some basic principles that help keep me pointed in the right direction: copy nature, enhance biodiversity, and plan for sustainable, cost-effective activities.

One such plan involves a few acres where I’m attempting to arrest and reverse the natural succession of pasture to fallow field to forest.  The site was last grazed about 25 years ago and is now a mixture of herbaceous vegetation, woody shrubs and young trees. My management goals are to 1-arrest succession on the majority of the fallow field, keeping it in the brushy, shrub stage; 2-reverse succession on small areas within the shrub habitat, creating herbaceous, meadow-like openings; and 3-control invasive plant species. Habitat boundaries are irregular and lack clear definition to simulate nature. Mechanical control is favored over other methods. Songbird nest boxes were installed on posts in the herbaceous openings (six in all).

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Brush-hogging to create an herbaceous opening; nest box on left

These types of habitats are preferred by dozens of wildlife species, from butterflies to deer, and have provided me with countless hours of recreation, nature study and photographic opportunities.

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Part of a family group of White-tailed Deer using an herbaceous opening soon after it was created

This post features a group of birds with broad appeal and interest that are benefiting from my management plan: cavity-nesting songbirds that use artificial nest boxes. The most common nest box in the landscape, one designed for the Eastern Bluebird, was my pattern of choice. I was hoping for bluebirds but was also aware of the multi-use value of nest boxes, especially where natural cavities in trees are limiting. In open habitats, nest boxes are commonly occupied by House Wrens and Tree Swallows, and on rare occasions the Great Crested Flycatcher.

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House Wren

House Wrens can be a bit of a nuisance, stuffing every nest box in sight with twigs, floor to ceiling, to discourage the competition (my father once counted over 700 twigs in a dummy nest – a considerable amount of work – for both parties!)

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House Wren

Tree Swallows in early April, resting, preening, and scouting nest boxes (5)

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Great Crested Flycatchers first claimed a meadow nest box three years ago. I knew that they were cavity nesters, but had never seen them occupy a nest box. The entrance hole to this box had been enlarged slightly by a Red Squirrel, perhaps making it more suitable for the flycatchers.

Great Crested Flycatchers, nest building (4)

 

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All of the featured species consume large quantities of insects throughout the spring and summer months, contributing to ecosystem stability and biodiversity.

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Great Crested Flycatcher with food for its young

Eastern Bluebirds prefer open habitats with low, herbaceous plant cover, such as pastures and large lawns. Without periodic maintenance, fallow fields eventually lose these characteristics and the bluebirds inhabitants as well

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One of a winter (January) flock of 8 – 10 bluebirds, an unusual sighting.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds that claimed a nest box on one of the recently cleared openings; resting, feeding, nest building, and guarding the nest box.

 

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Eastern Bluebird, male

 

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Eastern Bluebird, male

 

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Eastern Bluebird, female

 

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Eastern Bluebird, female, nest building

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Eastern Bluebird, male, guarding the nest box as Tree Swallows swarmed in to investigate.

I’m obviously an advocate of artificial nest boxes for wildlife, particularly when a need is identified. However, I also feel that natural tree cavities should be the highest priority. I  locate and protect den trees when working in the woods and sometimes create potential den or nest trees if natural cavities are lacking. 

All photos by NB Hunter