our first snow of the season brought…the snow bird!

I was looking out the window this morning to assess the damage from the wind we had experienced all day yesterday and last night (compliments of Hurricane Sandy!) when I noticed a small flock of dark-eyed juncos feeding at the edge of the woods. This winter visitor is commonly called the “snowbird” and, coincidentally, we had our first light snowfall of the season last night.

IMG_1657The dark-eyed, slate-colored, or northern junco (ornithologists just can’t seem to be able to make up their minds what to call these birds!) is a rather striking bird in the sparrow family – this picture doesn’t do them justice! For the most part ground-feeders, they prefer to eat flower and grass seeds or the seeds that fall from our feeders. This species has a definite social hierarchy (the so-called “pecking order) and are fun to watch as they scrap with each other over the food.

These amiable little birds are part of the larger winter flock of songbirds that forage the fields and will be with us until late spring when they migrate north to their breeding grounds.

the phoebes are getting ready for Sandy too!

During the last few days, the temps have been very mild here. I’ve been watching the Eastern phoebes feeding, and I can tell you, they are packing on the pounds! They seem to be concentrating on insects – I guess because once the weather turns cold, insects will be few and far between.

It’s interesting to watch the phoebes patiently sit on a branch like the one below and then suddenly fly out and grab a high-protein morsel mid-air.

I know that birds and other animals can sense changes in the weather, so maybe the phoebes are eating heavily in anticipation of the bad weather headed our way on Monday from Hurricane Sandy. Just like humans rushing out to the store to stock up on food, the phoebes are getting ready for the storm too!

fall provides a smorgasbord for wildlife

Fall is a time of abundance for wildlife and this year is no exception. Berries, acorns, nuts, and seeds are all available for the taking and the wild critters are eating as much as they can to gain the body weight that will help them get through the winter.

Here in central Virginia, it’s a good mast year – acorns from white, red, and chestnut oaks litter the ground. Acorns are high in carbohydrates, so they are a highly concentrated source of energy. More than 100 species of animals are known to consume acorns, including white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, gray foxes, and red foxes. Birds that feed on acorns include wild turkey, bobwhite quail, wood ducks, mallards, woodpeckers, crows, and jays.

Native fruit trees are another important food source for wildlife. Persimmon fruit ripens in late fall when other wildlife food is scarce and because the fruit falls a few at a time over a long period, it is available to species such as raccoons, fox, and many bird species during much of the winter.

Pokeberry is plentiful and the birds are already working on the hanging drupes of dark purple berries.

Pine cone seeds are also a popular food for wildlife and our Virginia pines are loaded with cones.

By this time of year, the grasses and wildflowers have gone to seed and those seeds will provide food for dozens of species of birds now through early spring. The picture below shows the kind of food-rich habitat that will keep the sparrow, finches, juncos, and phoebes busy all winter!

Goldenrod packs a double punch. Several birds, like finches, warblers, and indigo buntings, munch on its seeds. It’s also a popular overwintering site for insects, so birds get a well-balanced meal from one plant.

I could go on and on about the abundance of food that nature provides for her children, but you get the idea. I’m happy that while I’m enjoying my comfort foods this winter, I can rest assured that the wild creatures also have enough to eat. Of course, we still put out suet and bird seed for our feathered friends because watching their antics and listening to their calls brightens up the dreariest winter day!

sleepy ladybugs

I bought a new Canon PowerShot SX40 HS digital camera this year to improve the photos on my blog. I love the camera’s ease of use and most of the time, the pictures turn out great; however, the all-purpose zoom lens (35x IS) doesn’t allow me to take close-up shots. The reason I mention this is that this post is about ladybugs, a tiny insect with a body length of only 0.08 to 0.4 inches (2 to 10 millimeters).

My lens, as you can see in the second picture is clearly not up to the job, but here’s a high-resolution picture from the website: www.public-domain-images.com:

Anyway, yesterday, I noticed a couple of ladybugs on our back porch, soaking up the sun. How cute, I thought. Then, I saw a couple more, then a few more, and soon counted three dozen or so.

Like many other insects (i.e., the dratted stink bugs), they are looking for a place to spend the winter. They gather in large numbers for warmth and hide under leaves, tarps, or buildings, and will come into your house if they can find a way to get in.

Inside your house, they are actually quite harmless. They don’t bore or chew holes or lay eggs, but if you want rid of them, one way to trap them is fill a couple of Dixie cups or other small containers one-third full of grape jelly and set them on the window sill. Over a span of a few days, this will trap a large number of the invaders, which can then be released away from the house. You can also use a “shop vac” with a clean bag or a piece of cloth in the bottom to collect them and then release them outside. Because our homes are very dry in winter from the heat, most of the ladybug guests will more than likely die from dehydration anyway.

Most gardeners know that ladybugs are beneficial insects, capable of consuming up to 50 to 60 aphids per day, as well as a variety of other insects and larvae including scales, whiteflies, thrips, mealy bugs, leaf hoppers, and mites. They also eat the eggs of some insects such as moth eggs and certain ladybugs eat pollen and mildew. Many people purchase ladybugs in the spring and release them in their garden to help control destructive pests. If you decide to try this, make sure there’s ample food (pest insects and pollen) and water in the garden, or they will fly away once the food is exhausted. An excellent website, both for attracting ladybugs and for keeping them in your garden throughout the growing season, is: http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/gardening-how-to/attract-ladybugs.htm

There are beneficial insects and pest insects. Good insects are Mother Nature’s way of controlling nature’s pests. Learning which insects are good and which are bad will save you time and money in the garden, and help create a natural environment good for plants and people.

chickens and hawks don’t mix

When we first brought our chicken quartet home about a month ago, they did not want to leave the safety of the coop. They had been raised in close confines and it was obvious they felt more comfortable with four walls and a roof overhead.

Melvin, our Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster (front), with Mable (left), May (right), and Bess (in back), a Rhode Island Red

We built a run for them, but the flock was hesitant to leave the coop; I actually had to go inside and usher them out! They had good reason to be wary: two pairs of red-tailed hawks patrol our valley regularly and it didn’t take long for them to discover the new “carry-out” restaurant featuring fresh chicken!

Red-tailed hawk. Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Red-tails, sometimes called “chickenhawks,” prefer to prey on mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and smaller birds, but will attack full-grown chickens if they get hungry enough. First year hawks are especially likely to go after chickens in winter when other food is scarce. This is because young hawks are often relegated to the less desirable habitat, which means they are forced to take more risks in order to survive.

The red-tailed hawk is one of the largest members of the genus Buteo in North America, typically weighing from 1.5 to 3.5 pounds and measuring 18-26 inches in length, with a wingspan from 43 to 57 inches. When soaring or flapping its wings, it typically travels from 20 to 40 mph (64 km/h), but when diving may exceed 120 mph!

Red-tails are killing machines, relying on excellent eyesight and stealth to find their prey and their curved, sharp beak and strong talons (claws) to kill their victim. When spotting prey while in flight, they may dive straight down (at up to 120 mph) to snatch it with their sharp talons. They also watch for prey while sitting on a perch, such as a fence post, dead tree, or tree branch and once they see a potential meal, swoop down and kill it. Mated pairs commonly hunt together, chasing prey until one of them catches it.

Hearing the loud, raspy screams of the hawks patrolling our valley sealed the deal for the chickens – they fled to the safety of the coop! But some days, the wide-ranging hawks are busy hunting elsewhere and curiosity has pushed the flock to widen their circle of exploration beyond the safety of the coop.

A young rooster, Melvin is still trying to master the art of crowing, but is fulfilling his role as guardian of the flock and maintains a watchful eye over his girls. As you can see below, he is on the alert for signs of danger.

Each day, they venture a little farther from the coop.

Now that the flock has spent some time surveying their surroundings, they have found places to take cover should the hawks come in for a closer look. When they hear the distinctive cries of the hawk, they run under one of the vehicles or the crawlspace under the barn. Here, they are probably safe because the hawks are looking for easy victims and the mice, squirrels, and wild birds that are plentiful right now provide easier targets.

We want the flock to be able to free-range so they have access to the insects that will provide a high protein diet for them and give the eggs more flavor. Hopefully, the chickens will learn the lessons they have to learn to live with hawks. Right now, there is plenty of other food for the hawks; we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes this winter.

injured bluebird

Yesterday evening my husband and I got quite a surprise. While taking a walk we noticed a bird huddled in the weeds. The light was dim, but we could tell by his beautiful blue coloring that it was a male Eastern bluebird. Staying very still, he was probably hoping we would pass by without seeing him.

Bill went ahead with the dogs (who hadn’t seen the bird) and I quietly approached the frightened bird. Instead of taking flight, as any healthy bird would do, he ran a few steps and then tried to burrow into the grass. He didn’t resist as I gently cupped my hand around him and lifted him out of the grass. I slipped him into the front pocket of my sweatshirt and headed back to the house.

I called a certified wildlife rehabilitator who instructed me to place him in a shoe box for the night and put the box in a warm, quiet place away from the TV and any other noise. I felt sorry for him, but there was nothing else I could do until morning.

The next morning, I was happy to see that he had made it through the night. I put wild bird seed and water in two jar tops and placed them in the box, but he managed to spill the water and settled into one of the tops like it was a nest.

I gently picked him up to see if I could see any injury. I couldn’t find any obvious injury, but it appeared that his right wing seemed at a slightly different angle than his left wing.

Thinking he could get help sooner if I drove him directly to The Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, about 75 miles away, off we went.

Photo courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia

The Wildlife Center was established in 1982 to provide quality health care, often on an emergency basis, for native wildlife. Since 1982, the Center has treated more than 60,000 wild animals, representing more than 200 species of native birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Staff members are available seven days a week to help deal with wildlife health issues. Contact information and general advice on handling sick, injured or orphaned wildlife can be found on their website (www.wildlifecenter.org).

Visitors are not permitted to go into the area where the animals are placed for evaluation, but the receptionist was kind enough to use my camera to take a picture of their newest patient in his intake “cage.”

I was told they would do an x-ray and if his wing is broken at the shoulder, it wouldn’t be “fixable” because of the large amount of stress placed on the shoulder during flight, and he would have to be euthanized. If the injury can be repaired and he is able to be re-released, they will call me and I can pick him up and let him go on our farm. He would have the best chance of survival in familiar surroundings.

I will call tomorrow to find out the little guy’s fate. Hopefully, he will get the chance to rejoin his home flock and live out his life, but whatever happens, I’m glad there’s a place like the Wildlife Center that is equipped to care for and treat injured wildlife.