I observed courtship among holler birds beginning in mid-February this year -- first with northern cardinals, then doves and Carolina wrens -- but activity has intensified over the past few weeks.
My observations of breeding behavior among birds had been comparatively limited before I started maintaining feeders -- mainly songs, calls, and some phoebes and wrens that built nests close to my house. Yesterday, I managed to get photos of courtship feeding in pairs of cardinals and wrens.
When I saw a couple of Carolina wrens together on a porch step right outside my window, I fired the shutter as fast as I could, ending up with a few usable images. The first one below is the first one in the sequence, and shows what I think is the male of this pair feeding a small seed to his mate:
[Photo: Cathie Bird]
He then hopped down to find another seed. In the second photo, the female stands on the step with an open bill. At the bottom right edge of the image, you can see the male's bill and part of his head just before he hops back up to bring her another seed:
[Photo: Cathie Bird]
Later in the afternoon, a pair of northern cardinals engaged in the same behavior. In the photo below, the male has just given his mate a sunflower seed (visible in her beak):
[Photo: Cathie Bird]
At the same time, and a few branches up from the cardinals in the white oak tree, a pair of mourning doves sat near each other:
[Photo: Cathie Bird]
I couldn't tell if they were the same couple that sat on a post below one of the bird feeders on March 9th:
[Photo: Cathie Bird]
Or this pair in the same tree (and maybe the same branch!) on March 31st, just before an attempt to copulate (the photo I got of that was too out of focus to say for sure):
[Photo: Cathie Bird]
Late in the afternoon now, four to five pairs of doves come to feed together. Other species that have been around the feeders in larger numbers all winter seem to have spread out, and only one pair Carolina chickadees, cardinals and downy woodpeckers, along with two pairs of tufted titmice, continue to show up around the feeders every day.
Watching for migrating birds in the spring (and fall!) is such fun. In my last post I featured the first returnee to the holler, a pine warbler. This morning another migrator flew in: a male purple finch! He is the first of his kind that I've seen in the holler since I moved here, though I used to see purple, house and Cassin's finches quite often when I lived in Colorado. Such a pleasant surprise to see one again.
Pine Warbler on March 2, 2021. [Photo: Cathie Bird]
I had just started today's eBird checklist when I saw a really yellow bird among the American gold finches. He found a few seeds on the ground under the feeders, and flew in and out of my view-shed at least twice, allowing me to get a couple of usable photos. This is the first warbler I've seen in the holler in 2021.
I just recently started observing bagworm moth phenology at Nature's Notebook. I also observe the tufted titmouse. Today I got some photos of both that I did not expect:
Photo: Cathie Bird on July 12, 2020
Photo by Cathie Bird on July 12, 2020
This titmouse (or maybe others) caught, shredded and ate at least three of these caterpillars today. I've been finding them attached to all kinds of stuff around my porch and planter garden -- tools, ropes, chairs, scrap wood, logs. I saw my first bagworm caterpillar in May of 2019. Now I'm seeing them all over the place.
Yesterday as I was returning from my CSA veggie pick-up, I had to share the lane with a snapping turtle! I squeezed safely past her/him and drove on up to the house to drop off the produce and grab a camera. Approaching slowly and with caution, I got this photo:
I backed away after I got the pictures but took some time for thanks and admiration. My neighbors often see a snapping turtle around the bridge farther down the lane. This is the first time I've seen one around the creeks and swampy areas at this end of the holler, but I wondered if it was just visiting, since it was headed in the direction of the bridge when I encountered it.
I saw quite a bit of interesting bird activity, including a Carolina wren that was gathering nest material:
A pair of Carolina wrens has been hanging out close to the house this spring. I'm guessing this is one of them, but not sure where they are in their breeding cycle. The male comes to the porch to sing several times a day. Right now he's out at the edge of the woods.
I think I actually have two pairs of tufted titmice nesting near the house this year, one pair to the north and one south based on flight paths to the feeders. This one is of the northern pair:
Maybe the biggest bird story for me lately was the photo I didn't catch. On May 31st I came back to my study after a session outside with Chewie -- my brush mower -- and saw a female wood thrush gathering a beak-full of clippings. I came within seconds of snagging a photonic trophy before she flew out of sight with the fruits of my labor. I was happy to have been of service, though, and rode waves of awe to the end of the day just to have seen her.
Skinks are plentiful this year. I've seen Plestiodon inexpectatus -- southeastern 5-lined adults and at least two different juveniles -- one with its tail intact and the other without. I'm pretty sure I'm seeing broad-headed skinks (Plestiodon laticeps) as well. I'm still doing a little guessing on this. Coloration of both species is variable, and I have not caught any to look closely for the differentiating features, i.e., labial and tail scales.
No doubts that this is an eastern tiger swallowtail, though. The plant is a snapdragon that I bought for my planters. They flower earlier than any of the other container plants. Swallowtails are feeding on clover now, and were frequent visitors to the fleabane before it phased out.
Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on May 24, 2020. [Photo: Cathie Bird]
In the planters around this one, I have phlox, beebalm, Asia lilies and two species of milkweed. The phlox will be plentiful by the looks of it now. The others are not off to a great start, though I think the "snowball" milkweed will flower for the first time in a week or two:
The asia lilies have gotten quite tall but I haven't grown them before and am not sure what to expect.
Inside my study -- once I can keep the window open -- I have to do a bug patrol several times a day to catch and release any trapped insects. I successfully rescued this Nessus sphinx moth:
I caught this robber fly in the bug jar and opened the lid but he decided to stay for awhile, which allowed me to get some photos and search the images at BugGuide to narrow down the genus and species:
Robber fly (Laphria sp., maybe L. sericea or L. aktis) on May 29, 2020. [Photo: Cathie Bird]
This weekend I plan to install a new bird bath and make a "puddle" for butterflies...then sit back and see what amazing creatures show up.
Time to do a toad post! So often I see toads -- especially around my planters -- but don't have a camera. This week the sounds, sights and good fortune capturing images of toads all came together.
My first toad sighting of 2020 was an American toad on May 3rd. Once I start seeing them, I'm extra careful walking or working around my planter garden. However, returning home from town on May 15th, I almost stepped on this Fowler's toad. I went inside quickly to get my camera and found him in the same spot when I came back out:
Fowler's toad (Anaxyrus fowleri) on May 15, 2020 [Photo: Cathie Bird]
Yesterday, though, was the best toad-watch I ever had. I was coming home from a trip to dump trash, get my mail, and release the seventh mouse I've live-trapped this spring, when this American toad and I startled eachother. I decided to run back to my study and open the window to see if I could get some good photos without disturbing the toad any further.
Between 9:30am and 5pm this American toad hung out below my window. I got more than 150 images and watched it shift around within one square foot of rock and grass, changing positions several times, and even burrowing its hind-end down into some leaves for awhile:
American toad (Anaxyrus americanus), 9:51am on May 23, 2020. [Photo: Cathie Bird]
American toad (Anaxyrus americanus), 10:29am on May 23, 2020 [Photo: Cathie Bird]
American toad (Anaxyrus americanus), 12:03pm on May 23, 2020. [Photo: Cathie Bird]
Once I had a chance to study the photos, I didn't feel so sure about my identification of this toad. I cropped a few of the clearest ones to enlarge the view. The lighting in ones I took later in the day kind of threw my judgment of how the cranial ridge appears and whether or not there is a clear space separating the ridge from the parotid gland into question.
A few years ago I made this slide with my own photos and an illustration from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to help me review the differences. I think I have the appropriate placement of my photos above the illustration -- the toad on the right is A. americanus:
So I'm going to do some more checking before I say I'm comfortable with my identification. When I log this observation at Nature's Notebook, I'll give it a question mark. Whatever this toad is, I hope it keeps hanging out around my planters!
So, a final note about what I heard: The first time I heard a toad call, I assumed it was a bird. My search to discover who was calling out from the edge of the woods went nowhere until I noticed it was not coming from high in the trees, but down at forest ground level. That -- and the observation that the call's pattern and quality was not all that bird-like anyway -- led me to an exploration of frog and toad sounds, and then to my first identification of an American toad by ear. I've heard toad calls several times this week, including three or four yesterday while I was toad-watching. Some clearly sound like American toads, but at least one yesterday may have been a Fowler's toad.
I use these two web pages for help with frog and toad sounds:
Yellow-throated warbler male on May 19, 2020 [Photo: Cathie Bird]
Looks like the holler will have a pair of yellow-throated warblers nesting again this year. I have been hearing the male's song for awhile -- usually one of the first of the warbler species to return here. A few years ago I managed to get a very far away shot of one, mainly hoping it would help with identification. I've also seen males hunting for bugs around my porch. This one made my day!
Trillium species -- at my end of the holler, at least -- had fewer flowers last year. I observe two Trillium grandiflorum plants which both produced a flower in 2020. Trillium-2 came up first and had a bud by March 22nd:
On the same day, I caught the emergence of initial growth for Trillium-1, just visible at the edge of the moss and almost dead-center in the photo:
By March 28th, Trillium-1 had a bud:
A few feet away, Trillium-2 and several other plants near it had open flowers:
The trillium view farther down Terry Creek Lane inspired numerous vocalizations on my drive-bys. One of the slopes along the creek has several large colonies of Trillium grandiflorum that were packed with flowering plants this year. Unfortunately I never had my camera with me while they were out.
I also found a couple of red trillium clumps there, as well as yellow trillium, and a small group of "sweet betsy" (Trillium cuneatum) that hides a little bit up the slope and almost behind a tree -- tricky to find while driving on that narrow, winding part of the road.
I got one photo of the red trillium on a foggy/drippy April morning on my way back from town:
All of the flowers are gone now for all of the Trillium species -- most of them still have leaves visible, though, including Trillium-1 and -2 at my end of the holler.