I have some photos and stories about plants ready to compose but I face a major distraction: birds. Lots of birds. Different kinds of birds. Birds I've not seen here before. So first I'm going to do a post on what's flying, singing, eating and nesting in the holler this spring.
Indigo buntings have shown up in the holler every year -- usually late March or April -- since I moved here twenty years ago. For several years, now, goldfinches from open fields farther down the holler have been coming to feed on Echinacea fruits. Last year I added bird feeders around my planter garden, and they have attracted quite a few more goldfinches.
I bought a digital SLR camera last year specifically to catch more bird images. Here are some early photo results for indigo buntings and American goldfinches:
Rose-breasted grosbeaks, a species I had never seen in the holler or anywhere else, showed up at my feeder on April 25th. First I saw a male and female. Since then, more have gotten brave enough to stop by -- as many as four females and three males so far. Here are some photos:
I see Tufted titmice and Carolina wrens year round. Both species build nests and raise chicks near my house every year. The wren couple has not been around much in the past week. They often come together in the evening and groom, eat and play around my planter garden. Once a new batch of wrens has fledged they usually come to play as well.
In addition to the birds I've managed to photograph this spring, I've seen others at a distance and heard many more voices in the woods around my house: cardinals, eastern phoebes, blue jays, crows, wood thrushes, hooded warblers, white-eyed vireos, common yellowthroats, yellow-throated warblers, and some others I'm still working to identify. I'm pretty sure that at least one pair of northern cardinals is nesting nearby. A male phoebe has been around since January 27th but I don't think he's found a partner yet. The first ruby-throated hummingbird of 2020 -- a female -- came to my window on April 30th, the earliest I've seen one, I think. She came several days in a row after that, but I haven't seen her since May 3rd.
I love to take porch breaks to see who's around and hear the tweet-storm du jour!
Following my decision to "hole up" in the holler around March 2nd, I signed up for the online nature journaling and field sketching course at Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bird Academy. I have taken other courses there to expand knowledge and sharpen skills for my phenology observation activities on Nature's Notebook -- identifying bird songs and understanding bird behavior, for example.
I didn't anticipate how my work on this course might influence content here on HollerPhenology until I finished the first assignment which was -- prior to any instruction in how to sketch -- to draw a yellow warbler, then think about what advantages drawings have over photos and vice versa. These questions dropped me into the center of future intentions for posts on HollerPhenology.
I have relied, primarily, on my own photos to add visual illustrations of what's happening with life cycles of wild things where I live. Before I put them into a post, however, I often use my photos to validate what I thought I saw. Since images are time-stamped, they serve to back up memory chronology as well. Photos of one individual or colony over several years can document changes in the "neighborhood" of a certain plant that I might not remember.
Sketching the yellow warbler took me into a different (and unexpected) space, a deeper and possibly more intimate one with the species I observe. I want to explore this experience further. Every once in awhile, I want to toss a sketch instead of a photo into my posts, or maybe both, side by side.
Another thing I want to do with HollerPhenology will involve shorter posts published (I hope!) more often. The need to limit excursions beyond the holler in these days of the coronvirus may help inspire me to anchor this new habit.
On my first holler-walk since the subfreezing temperatures of last week, I didn't need a coat and didn't take my camera. Of course, I found all kinds of things to report:
Amur honeysuckle and multiflora rose have a few leaves as well as plenty of leaf buds.
I also found more sharp-lobed Hepatica leaves than I can remember, probably two dozen or more individual plants in two different areas. I checked these spots closely, looking for signs of rue anemone and trout lily, and found only the Hepatica leaves. Hepatica comes up every year in the holler but I usually find just two or three plants in each of the places I saw them today. It looked like somebody had been nibbling on a few of them.
Here's an image of Hepatica acutiloba I took last March:
Several bird species called out while I walked: I heard at least five blue jays all vocalizing at once from five different directions, but only saw one of them. I saw two tufted titmice -- one of them was singing -- also a singing Carolina wren. I heard a cardinal but did not see it. I caught sight of several very small quiet birds but never got close enough to verify their species.
I did find some interesting bird evidence to bring home and photograph. My 2020 phenology observations calendar made an appropriate backdrop for it:
Screen shot of a Status of Spring page map at USA National Phenology Network
A few days ago I saw four turkey hens feeding together in the field where at least one of them will probably raise some chicks in a few months. Overhead the same day, I heard calls of two red-shouldered hawks, followed immediately by loud squawks of a whistle-blowing blue jay. Yesterday, the first iridescent blue flash of the season signaled the arrival of an indigo bunting.
I read all of these as signs of a seasonal shift, though a sense of spring swirling inside me revealed itself well before these outer manifestations. Lately I've made all treks up and down the holler -- on foot or in the car -- with a more intentional gaze toward the places where toothwort, rue anemone, Carolina spring beauty and trout lily will soon evoke my surprise and delight.
I also messed around in my planter garden this week, poking in a few bulbs, cutting back dead stems, making mind-notes about stuff I need to do before sowing herbs or buying a few blossoming annuals for early insect and hummingbird visitors. This year I'm recycling parts of old flower pots to make a shelter for toads that hang around the planters.
Is all of this happening earlier than usual? And what's the weather outlook?
As I write this, it's 43 degrees outside. We've had rain and flash flood watches for the last 3 days. The predicted low for tonight is 21 degrees; predicted high for tomorrow is only 37, with an even colder low at 18 degrees. Saturday will be warmer. This pattern has circled around two or three times since 2020 began and probably will repeat itself over the next few weeks.
I'll be monitoring my planters and the rest of the holler to see how plants and birds are faring with this meteorological chaos.
See these articles/pages for more on the challenges of an early spring to trees and flowering plants:
Spring has arrived weeks early in the South (Washington Post 2/13/20)
Status of Spring page at USA National Phenology Network
The eastern tailed blue butterfly -- a species I observe for Nature's Notebook -- has been out for awhile. Earlier this month, I finally caught up with one that sat still long enough for me to get the photo above as it visited my insect-friendly watering hole.
On the other hand, the crescent butterfly that had come to my window several days earlier sat within a few inches of me for 2-3 hours. He allowed me to get a number of photos, to get right up in his face (literally) for a closer look, trying to figure out for sure if he was a pearl or northern crescent, or a silvery checkerspot. I'm thinking now that he was a northern crescent. A silvery checkerspot came to the window this past week and, though I didn't get photographic evidence, I did get a good look at the black wing markings that help differentiate the crescents from the checkerspots. The more open orange markings on the butterfly below suggest those of the northern as opposed to the pearl crescent:
As I often do when I have such extended encounters with other Earth dwellers, I spoke to this butterfly as I sat next to him, butterfly guide in hand. I've had conversations like this with a number of species. What might they have to tell us, and how might we get their messages?
When I took a short break to see what was up with Facebook friends, I noted that psychoanalytic colleague, Renee Lertzman, had just posted a link about journalist James Nestor’s work with the CETI Project, which focuses on studying and attempting to comprehend sperm whale clicks. As I sat trying to comprehend this butterfly -- after reading of CETI Project questions about what cetaceans are saying -- I decided that I should try to organize some posts at my In Hawk Space blog about my own experiences. Human interactions with the non-human environment is a subject in which my psychoanalytic study and practice intersects with previous work as a naturalist and current interest in phenology. My encounters with plants, birds, insects and mammals as a phenology observer serve to generate both data and narratives about those spaces where humans and nature meet...inaugural post coming soon to hawk space.
For several years, the Echinacea patch and planter garden have attracted at least one pair of Diana fritillaries. I don't record observations for this species, but their presence always prompts me to carefully differentiate the blue flash of a female Diana (above) from that of the the pipevine swallowtail, and the striking orange of the male Diana (below) from the great spangled fritillary.
Earlier in the month I also saw a viceroy. I had spotted one in the holler a few years ago, but hadn't seen another until this one came by:
The ebony jewelwing is another species I don't see much of for long stretches. Then comes a year like this one in which I see them often and can get close enough for photos. This female jewelwing seems to find poison ivy much more user-friendly than I do:
I've noticed a greater variety of dragonflies in the holler this year, including a large blueish one that I could not catch a long-enough look at to identify. One day while I was watching wrens bring food to their most recent nest, one of them landed on a planter geranium, and I was able to get a good enough image to identify it as a male slaty skimmer:
The female's markings are more like that of a female whitetail, though the slatys are noticeably larger. Both genders of both species have hunted near my planter garden this year.
Finally, a brief wren update: I have seen two juvenile wrens, often times with an adult male, around my planter garden several times since the most recent nestlings fledged, so I'm thinking two made it instead of just one.
In my last post I wrote about new nest building activity by a pair of Carolina wrens that ended on June 10th. As of June 17th, when I accidentally flushed the female out of the nest, I have considered the nest to be occupied. Ten days later, June 27th, I saw the female leave the nest, and the following day, got a photo of her (above) as she arrived at the nest. Later that day, I saw the female bring food a couple of times.
Both parents have been bringing food since July 2nd. Here's some video:
While this was going on outside, I consulted Cornell Lab's Birds of North America database, and continued working through their online Bird Academy course, Think Like a Bird: Understanding Bird Behavior. I've found both of these to be extremely valuable resources as a second round of wrens-in-the-holler stories unfolds.
Based on info from Birds of North America, I guessed that the nestlings would fledge sometime on Friday, the 6th of July.
I noticed an increase in the number of flights to the nest by both parents on July 5th. During the trips later in the day, the approach behavior of the parents shifted, with the mom coming to the porch rail and hopping back and forth before going up into the nest.
Also on the 5th, I got this video of the dad catching a bug. He had just been to the nest, and was singing after his exit, when he saw a bug and went after it:
This is the last video of activity at the second nest for this wren couple. Instead of taking food directly to the nest upon arrival, the mom wren sat above or below the nest making soft vocalizations for several seconds before entering. In this video, you can hear the dad wren singing fairly close by:
I may have caught a brief glimpse of at least one fledgling, but I could not get my camera or binoculars quick enough to verify this before the bird dropped out of sight under the porch.
Today, except for vocalizations of a male wren at the edge of the woods near the nest, it is very quiet. I am assuming all surviving nestlings have fledged. I'll watch, now, for any return visits by this second round of wrens, and for whatever else may draw my gaze around and beyond my planter garden.
One month to the day after four Carolina wren nestlings fledged, the young birds and their parents returned to my planter garden in late afternoon to forage, preen, scratch, stretch and take dust baths in the soft dirt under my porch. Here's some of the video I got:
Such a wonderful way to end the day for me, to reconnect with these birds as a family. I have had this experience before with phoebes and wrens that hatched, flew out into the world from nests near my porch (at least I suspected it was the same ones), then returned as a group to hang out in the planters for awhile. This most recent wren reunion, however, was the longest and most animated one yet.
I noticed during their visit that one of the parents (the mom, I think) got into the hanging flower baskets. I couldn't see what she was doing, but whatever it was set the stems, flowers, and even the basket in motion. Over the next few days, the parents continued to bring nesting material into the basket with red flowers. On the day I took the video below (June 10th), they worked most of the day at this:
On June 11th, I didn't see any nest building or even visits to the basket. For the next few days, however, the male came each morning, sat on the porch rail near the nest, and sang. In the meantime, I spent much time thinking about how to maintain the planters, and especially the baskets, if they decided to have another brood here, keeping in mind how my activity might affect them. By June 15th, I decided I had to water the planter flowers and at least carefully check the baskets. They are kind of tricky: being partially under the porch roof, they don't catch much rain and require more frequent watering.
While checking the soil moisture in the red basket, I also looked closely to see the orientation of the nest. It looked like I could use my smaller, long-spouted watering can to put enough water on just one side of the plant to deliver sufficient water to the roots without disturbing the nest. In the middle of this procedure, I saw a flash of wren just beyond the planter, and watched it fly down to a place where grass and driveway meet. I suspect that was the mom flying out of the nest, which I now believe to be occupied. I'll limit my business on the porch and around the planters for awhile, and just watch from a distance. No doubt about this, though: the wren dad continues to be there under the nest every morning, and sings me into the new day.
Farther down the holler this week, I saw more wood thrushes in just three days than I have in a whole lifetime.
In the first sighting on June 13th, two wood thrushes were entangled in what looked to be a territory dispute right in the middle of the road. I had to stop and watch or risk running over them. They were in such a flurry that I couldn't see for sure if they were both males, and first wondered if this was, instead, a mating ritual. After several seconds they broke it up and continued with a short bout of aggressive/defensive posturing at the side of the road. At that point I ruled out the mating interpretation.
Friday afternoon, on my way to pick up my CSA veggie basket at a neighbor's farm, I saw a single wood thrush just beyond my house, sitting in the same place that I'd seen a female two or three years earlier. Then yesterday, as I returned from a trip to town, I saw a bird standing in the middle of one track on my driveway. It didn't move when I got closer. I could see that it was a very young wood thrush, probably just fledged.
I stopped the car to give it time to move off. It didn't. A few seconds later, a female wood thrush flew down to the lane and hopped toward her fledgling. First she tried to coax it to the side of the lane. When that didn't work, she tried a couple of hops and then a short flight to a spot beyond the track.
The baby moved off a little, enough that I thought I could get past it safely. When I started moving the car forward, the young thrush took a leaping, low hop-flight into the creek-side vegetation while its mom watched from a tree branch. This whole thing happened in the same space I had seen the mom the day before. It was my first sighting of a wood thrush fledgling. I replayed the scene in my mind throughout the evening and great joy ensued!
Just before noon today, I went out to get some photos for this post and, just by chance, caught the fledging of four Carolina wrens! I thought they had already gone because I hadn't seen parents taking food to the nest for awhile, thus I'd planned to weed-eat around the patio today so I could get on with my 2018 planter projects. As I came to the edge of the porch, I startled the mother wren (she had a bug in her beak) and she went into hiding near the planters. I decided to delay the weed-eating until I figured out where this wren family was in their process.
A few minutes later I saw both parents near the nest with food, but staying just out of reach of the chicks. I noticed one chick had already flown to a ledge above my house's rock foundation, and at least three others were visible at the edge of the nest:
Soon, two more of the chicks flew down to join the first one:
One by one they flew off toward a brush pile -- I could hear the adult male singing from that direction. The one in the image below was the last of these three to fly off:
When the mother wren came back to the nest, the last chick came out a little further, crouched low, then fluttered down to the ledge. I got a somewhat blurry photo of the exit before my camera battery dropped out of warp:
As I write this post, wren calls and songs still fill the air space beyond my window. I might weed-eat later, but for now it feels good just to write this post and enjoy what I've seen today.
So, around the corner from all the sweet wren babies, the sweet bubbies -- aka Carolina allspice, Spicebush, Sweet Betsy, Sweet shrub, and Sweetshrub -- are out:
Calycanthus floridus buds on May 6, 2018. [Photo: Cathie Bird]
These bushes attract a number of butterfly and other insect species. Over the years I've gotten quite a few pictures of bubby bush visitors whose vibrant colors are easy to capture against the large green leaves and dark flowers.
I was really surprised to look out into a very rainy holler yesterday and see that my Siberian iris is flowering. It's been four or five years since they last bloomed. I blame weird spring weather for this flower drought.
Another reason I delayed firing up my weed-eater this week is that so many flowers that bees and butterflies use have been in the line of fire. In the last two days, however, both white and red clovers have bloomed in all parts of the yard, so I feel like I can at least whack a path around the patio and to my car without taking too much of their food out of production.
I could swear that all of this lyreleaf sage popped up overnight. I noticed a few plants blooming along the lane this week but today when I looked out my study window, the yard was pale purple:
I usually hold off any major mowing until these plants finish their flowering cycle. Bees and butterflies seem to like them, so I tolerate a few pathways around the house being knee high in vegetation until more nectar species are available.
The first Amur honeysuckle flowers opened on April 26th. I finally remembered to get a photo for HollerPhenology:
Yesterday I made my annual run to my favorite Knoxville nursery to get plants for my patio garden. I didn't have a chance to get any planted today because of the wren and weed-eating delays, but bees and butterflies have already found them in their temporary pots. I saw my first spicebush swallowtail of 2018 checking out the lyreleaf sage and all of the new plants, and several carpenter bees have visited them, though much of their activity today has involved courtship and turf wars. I saw a couple of bumble bees on the clovers, too.
An amazing new bird week started the day after my last post. On Monday, the 23rd of April, within a space of 2-3 minutes, I saw all of these birds right outside my study window (and not near the new bird feeder that no one has discovered yet!): a pair of tufted titmice, blue-gray gnatcatcher, male indigo bunting, two white-eyed vireos, a brown thrasher, cardinal, blue-headed vireo, male yellow-throated warbler, and an American redstart -- the first one of its species I have ever seen.
But it didn't stop there. On the 24th, I noticed a female Carolina wren catching food and flying toward a nest under my satellite dish. Over the next couple of days I saw both parents bringing food to the nest with greater frequency.
During my holler walk on April 27th, I heard the first wood thrush of the season, and, on the 28th, the song of a common yellow-throated warbler.
Wren feeding nestlings on April 28, 2018. [Video: Cathie Bird]
I'm now into day 5 of the wren nest watch. After getting my video camera charged up for the occasion, I caught one of the parents -- the mom, I think -- bringing more food to the nest.
Yesterday while I was watching the wrens, I saw another holler neighbor crawling up my porch steps while my cat, Buddy, looked on:
Once it crawled out of sight, I decided I should monitor its progress, first, to make sure it didn't turn back toward the wren nest, and, second, to make sure it didn't try to go through the pet door.
Up on the porch, I got the next two photos of the snake, and of the snake approaching my dog, Shadow, who came close to sniff but otherwise took alternate routes to his favorite porch spots:
Very slowly the snake kept moving across the porch, occasionally winding its way up the hemlock sticks then back down to the rails. When I was sure it intended to keep heading north, I went back to wren watching.
Plenty of new things happened with trees and flowering plants as well this past week. The other American beech I observe for Nature's Notebook leafed out, and the Amur honeysuckle now has flowers.
Dogwood-3 has flowers, too:
After a rough growing season last year, Cutleaf Toothwort-1 has safely arrived at its fruit production stage. This is the first year I've seen its fruits develop this far. I hope to catch their ripening and seed drop in days to come:
Finally, here's a dwarf crested iris in bloom -- not too many out yet:
Such an exciting week in the holler, and it's only the end of April!