wild meadows

My husband and I decided when we purchased our farm that we would discontinue mowing the fields, which for the last few years had been mowed for hay. These now fallow fields, green in the spring and golden in the fall, are slowly being reclaimed by nature. Once plentiful native grasses and wildflowers are re-emerging to provide a source of food for deer and other browsers, seed for birds, nectar for pollinators, and places for wildlife of all kinds to find shade, nest, and hide from predators.

Native grasses like little bluestem are coming back

Looking across the fields, we watch the seasonal sequence of green shoots emerging, wildflowers blooming, monarchs and swallowtails nectaring, sparrows singing from atop grass stems, and bees gathering pollen to take back to their hives. At sunset, they become swallowfields as white-breasted tree swallows make low sweeps back and forth, plucking insects from the air, and after dark, they are the mating grounds of the fireflies.

Visiting tiger swallowtail

After four years of no mowing, native grasses are better able to compete with non-native species. We’re seeing an increase in such natives as Eastern gamagrass, Indian grass, and little bluestem. We’re also seeing more blackberry brambles than ever before, and more wildflowers, including some species we haven’t seen before such as butterweed, goatsbeard, and butterfly weed.

Oxeye daisies dominate portions of the fields

We mow a small area around the house and outbuildings and along the edges of the lane, but leave the remaining woods and fields to the deft hand of Mother Nature. There was a time when I liked an orderly, weed-free lawn, but now I see a tangle of weeds as a sanctuary for crickets and toads, a stand of thistle as a feast for goldfinches, and a tall reed as a singing platform for a sparrow. Beauty is, indeed, in the eyes of the beholder.

In upland mowings now no longer mowed, the banished weed again lifts high its head, ennobled by some quaint ancestral name.  Benjamin T. Richards

Advertisements

safe haven

A few weeks ago, a pair of Eastern phoebes decided to build a nest in the rafters of our porch. After a brief courtship, they began bringing tiny balls of mud from the creek bank and depositing them on a narrow ledge on the porch. After it dried, the mud would help to secure the nest to the ledge. Once they were satisfied with the mud base, the phoebes built the nest out of lichens, moss, and soft plant parts. The nest was just ten feet from the front door.

I was surprised that the phoebes chose such a busy location when they could have built the nest in a less-trafficked area. For two weeks, despite the human activity and the dogs running in and out the door, the female remained entrenched in the nest, seemingly oblivious to the noise and traffic, while she waited for her eggs to hatch. This struck me as amazing when only a couple of weeks ago I wouldn’t have even known the phoebes were around if I hadn’t heard their back and forth courtship calls.

Phoebes are not the only birds that choose to build their nests close to human activity. Sparrows, swallows, bluebirds, and wrens, to name a few, are also known to build their nests in the eaves of homes and barns where there is a lot of activity. Sensing that their helpless offspring will be safer if located close to human activity, these birds are able to temporarily overcome their innate fear of people and use their hosts as a sort of insurance policy against predation of the nest.

The list of predators of bird nests is a long one: hawks, owls, crows, blue jays, weasels, fox, squirrels, snakes, and cats. In the wild, the odds are stacked against the phoebes. So, weighing the scales, it would seem the lesser of the two evils to endure the closeness of humans. In any event, it ended well for the little ones. The five youngsters, shown below, all fledged safely.

Three days before leaving the nest

The day before the big day (the nest is looking very crowded!)

The fledglings will remain under their parent’s care until they are old enough to fend for themselves. The youngster below is patiently waiting for mom or dad to bring him some food, but in a matter of days, he will be entirely on his own.

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, daffodils and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. Ralph Waldo Emerson

roadside wildflowers

When my husband and I lived in the suburbs of Maryland, the roadsides were mowed religiously throughout the growing season. The vigorous mowing schedule meant that any wildflowers that happened to show up in the spring usually got mowed before they had a chance to go to seed and produce new plants the following season. Rarely did I see more than the most hardy and common wildflowers.

Here in rural southwestern Virginia, mowing along the back roads is less a priority and wildflowers are abundant. Whenever I drive anywhere I’m always on the lookout for a wildflower that I haven’t seen before or one that is uncommon in this area. A few days ago I spotted this patch of fire pinks – my first ever sighting of this dainty spring ephemeral.

Here are a few other wildflowers that I spotted on the back roads and took the time to photograph.

Goatsbeard

Dame’s rocket

Lady’s slipper

With so many wildflowers to see, a 25-minute trip to the grocery store can (and often does) turn into an hour-long excursion, with me stopping every few miles to take a picture. I could leave my camera at home, but then it’s a sure bet I’d see some species I’ve never seen before. The spring wildflowers will only be with us for a few short weeks, so I’m going to keep on looking and enjoy the show. After all, I won’t see them again for another year!

country girl

Callie, our 3-year-old Shih-tzu mix, was a city pup when we moved to our farm last January. Since then, though, she has come to appreciate the finer points of county living, from her own perspective, of course.

For one thing, I think she feels obliged to try to meet some of the interesting critters that share her habitat. When she’s not napping in a sunny spot on the porch, she spends hours hunting for the skinks, mice, toads, crickets, and lizards that have such curious smells, but always seem to elude her, despite her best efforts to flush them out.

Hey, I know you’re in there. Come out and show yourself!

Don’t make me have to come in there…

Callie is enjoying these “hunts”, even though she is easily outmaneuvered by the objects of her desire, all of whom are well-versed in the art of camouflage, stealth, and evasion, and hear her coming long before she gets close enough to present a threat. But that doesn’t stop our little country girl from trying to get to know the local wildlife better. Look out critters, here she comes!

Wow! These cicada shells taste just like fried pork rinds!

return of the 17-year cicada

It’s hard to believe it’s happening again so soon, but this week we began seeing the 17-year “periodical cicadas” emerging from their underground chambers. With each passing day, we’re seeing more and more of the newly emerged cicadas on leaves, bark, grass, and buildings. It rained last night, and it must have rained cicadas because they are everywhere.

Magicicada spp., the 17-year cicada seen in the Blue Ridge

The periodical cicada species are so named because, in any one location, all of the members of the population are developmentally synchronized—they emerge as adults all at once in the same year. All other cicada species (about 6,000 worldwide) are not synchronized, so some adults mature each summer and emerge while the rest of the population continues to develop underground. Many people know periodical cicadas by the name “17-year locusts” or “13-year locusts”, but they are not true locusts, which are a type of grasshopper.

Magicicada spp. spend much of their 17-year life cycle underground feeding on xylem fluids from the roots of deciduous trees. In the spring of their 17th year, a few weeks before emerging, the cicada nymphs construct exit tunnels to the surface. These tunnels are visible as approximately ½-inch diameter holes, or as chimney-like mud “turrets” which the nymphs sometimes construct over their holes.

Then on some spring evening when the soil temperature at roughly an 8-inch depth is above 17 °C (63 °F), the nymphs come out of their tunnels and climb to a suitable place on nearby vegetation to molt one last time and complete their transformation into an adult cicada.

Empty shell after the cicada’s last molt

After molting, cicadas spend about six days hidden in the leaves waiting for their exoskeleton to harden completely. During this time, they are easy prey for birds,  reptiles, squirrels, cats, and other large and small mammals. So it would appear that overwhelming predators by their sheer numbers, ensuring the survival of most of the individuals, is an advantageous survival mechanism for the cicadas.

Despite their prolonged developmental phase, the adults are only active for a few weeks. Soon after molting, the males gather in the trees and “sing” to attract the females. Within two months of their appearance (about mid-July in Virginia), the females will lay their eggs and then the adults will die and the cicadas will be gone for another 17 years.

 Nature never hurries. Atom by atom, little by little, she achieves her work. Ralph Waldo Emerson

renewal

Today was an amazing day at Autumn Song. While eating breakfast, we noticed a recently-fledged Carolina wren staring at us through the French doors from his unsteady perch on the porch railing. For several minutes we watched each other through the glass until the little guy got bored and flew off, rather clumsily, into a nearby tree. When I checked a few minutes later, he was gone, so evidently, he was getting the navigation thing.

Then in the afternoon, one of Bill’s bee hives swarmed. The swarm, which contained thousands of bees, attached itself to a tree near the bee yard in a huge, ominous-looking mass. Swarming is a natural occurrence for bees: when there is no more room in the brood chamber for the queen to lay any more eggs, the hive divides. The queen and about half the bees leave the hive in a swarm (the old hive “grows” a new queen). The swarm generally amasses in a place close to the hive and sends out scouts to find a new home and lead the swarm to the new spot.

Honey bee swarm near the bee yard

During this phase, the bees are fairly docile and can easily be collected and put into a new hive. With the swarm still attached, Bill cut off the limb and with a gentle tap, the bees fell into a rubber tub.

Collecting the swarm in a tub

He then carried the tub back to the bee yard and emptied the bees into a new hive he had prepared.

Emptying the swarm into the new hive

The two boxes pictured above are the brood chamber and will hold the eggs, pollen, and honey. Bill will then add additional boxes (called “supers”), which will hold more honey to be shared by the bees, and, of course, us!

Later that evening, while taking the dogs for a walk, we noticed that the door of the bluebird house in the front field had come unhinged and was hanging. Walking over to take a closer look, we saw two birds, no more than a few days old, huddled inside. (The white blob at the bottom is the downy feathers on the second’s bird head – a horrible picture, I know, but I was reaching up at an awkward angle!)

To our surprise (and dismay), they were not bluebirds at all, but European starlings! Starlings are not native and aggressively compete with bluebirds and other native cavity-nesters, often evicting them from nesting sites. Despite our mixed feelings about starlings, we could not let the babies freeze to death or be eaten by predators. Competition is a natural part of nature; letting the starlings die would not alter that fact, so with mom watching anxiously, we reattached the door. No sooner had we left than the mother flew in to check on her brood.

During this season of renewal, we count ourselves lucky to witness nature’s miracles unfolding all around us.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. — John Muir